Study for PBS calls on stations to embrace collaborations in managing Passport

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Passport, PBS’ members-only streaming service, is doing much more than bringing millions of dollars and younger members to public TV stations nationwide. It’s also changing how stations approach staffing and job responsibilities.

“The success of Passport locally has accelerated the digital transformation across the system” since its launch late in 2015, Chas Offutt, PBS senior director of development services, digital, told Current. “A new younger donor class has emerged, and it challenges what we know about our members. These donors are driving the change, which has resulted in a better understanding of how local stations are staffed for the future.”


Passport has become a powerful recruiting tool for stations, Offutt said during an April 3 PBS TechCon session in Las Vegas. As of September 2018, the membership streaming service had generated $33 million in revenues, he reported, adding that 75% of Passport-activated members are new to stations and two-thirds are donating as sustainers. As of early March, 145 stations had activated Passport as a membership benefit.

PBS commissioned a report from Cause Craft Consulting to examine staffing needs and shifts for digital fundraising work required to support and improve Passport at local stations. The company, which specializes in assisting nonprofits through times of change, last month released “Staffing for Success: Digital Fundraising in the Era of PBS Passport.”

One of its main findings: Passport has had “significant impact on staffing and workflows.” Its top recommendation is that stations approach Passport as “a full-station initiative,” touching all departments.

Through the report, PBS learned that “stations that are reallocating resources and hires have an increased buy-in and attention for digital fundraising,” Offutt said.

The good news is that 73% of stations in the report are indeed spreading Passport work across departments. Consultants learned that after surveying 45% of PBS stations including 72 GMs and dozens of fundraisers, marketers, content, and education staff and digital directors.

KLRU in Austin, Texas, hired an additional full-time staffer to handle the growing influx of valuable donor data, and its staff is working collaboratively across units on Passport. And at Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Director of Programming Jason Viso is getting more deeply involved in digital fundraising, strategizing closely with other departments on local streaming possibilities.

On-air fundraising also divides work among “multiple parts of an organization” including membership, programming and even volunteers, said David Preston, membership VP at Twin Cities PBS in St. Paul, Minn. “That same schism happens with digital fundraising,” he said, which increasingly focuses on Passport. “Some departments feel they own it. That may not necessarily become a conflict,” he said, but it’s important to clarify roles so staff understand “who’s carrying the ball right now?”

The main responsibility for Passport falls to development teams at 70% of stations surveyed. But, of those, only 27%  have sole responsibility for Passport, including such key activities as managing member data and executing outbound campaigns, without input from other units.

Other teams that own Passport include on-air fundraising, at 10% of stations surveyed; marketing, 8%; digital, 7%; and programming, 4%.       

Passport “has either significantly increased staff collaboration between teams or revealed the need for increased collaboration” at 43% of stations, according to the report.

Notably, the research said, “even stations that reported no formal changes in staffing as a result of Passport have still experienced increased collaboration.” Several stations have created working groups to formalize workflows, information sharing and decision- making among key staff for Passport, it said.

“Predictably,” the report said, the number of station staffers who work on Passport correlates to the size of an organization. Small stations generally rely on one person, while midsize stations are more likely to involve several staffers, with a “broader informal team of supporting players helping to accomplish the work,” according to the report.

However, the research noted, “while the largest stations are likeliest to have a dedicated digital fundraising person or team, we did find examples of small stations that have invested in a dedicated, full-time digital fundraiser or a crossover digital content and fundraising hire.”

“While there’s no silver bullet or single right way for stations to build up their capacity for digital fundraising, there are a lot of terrific models and examples already happening within the system — what we call ‘better practices,’” Misty McLaughlin, researcher and strategist with Cause Craft, told Current. “Stations are applying what they know about digital-first approaches in order to learn about their members, test new ideas and tailor supporter experiences.”

“Even for stations who aren’t yet seeing results with digital fundraising,” McLaughlin said, “there are significant opportunities to start modernizing their internal staffing models and workflows to be prepared to serve this new class of member/viewer.”

Shifting responsibilities

Report recommendations for stations include establishing a Passport working group to create a clearer division of labor, developing a multichannel content and campaigns calendar to consolidate communication for all audience groups and investing in staff training to develop digital fundraising skills.

That training is important, said Viso, one of two programmers on the 12-member Passport Station User  Group, which advises PBS about the platform. Stations haven’t necessarily staffed for the digital age, he said, so evaluating employee skill sets and providing training “will make them much more digital-savvy.”

According to the report, “as a rule, most stations separate digital content from digital fundraising as distinct functions, but staff in both roles are expected to play a part in the website, social media, emails and advertising.” Staffers need “strong fluency” in data, analytics and back-end technology, the research said.

“A number of full-time digital fundraisers are self-taught station staff (primarily fundraisers) who organically took over their current responsibilities and learned on the job, eventually moving from generalist to more specialized roles such as digital fundraising strategy and analysis,” the report noted.

Viso said programming duties are shifting as well. “The way linear programming is scheduled has been changing,” he said. “Part of a programmer’s role in the future will be how to curate content on websites and through Passport.”

At LPB, Viso works closely with the development department and website team on Passport. “We want to figure out what local programs should live in Passport,” he said. “What’s the value of each program?” They’re considering cooking series and historical documentaries. “Multiple departments are coming up with the strategy,” he said.


Passport work at KLRU is collaborative as well, said Susannah Winslow, development VP.

Although Passport belongs to KLRU’s membership department, the work is “absolutely” shared across the station, she said. “We’ve thought about having a specific Passport group, and brought a group together several times. But a separate meeting isn’t necessary because Passport discussions are now part of our everyday workflow.”

The influx of Passport data and donations prompted KLRU to expand work to two new full-timers, in customer service (to help subscribers activate) and data entry. “The staff we had was just overloaded,” Winslow said.

Offutt said KLRU is a good example of blending digital fundraising with traditional pledge, using the weeks leading up to pledge and afterwards to create micro- or wraparound fundraising campaigns using Passport.

Now, Winslow said, Passport is the station’s top acquisition channel, bringing in 50% of new members. “Once staffers saw that, it added to the excitement around Passport work,” she said. “Now they say, ‘How can we do more?’”

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