How to recalibrate and press ahead with public media fundraising

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Many public media leaders have worked through challenging times before, steering our fundraising programs through natural disasters, terrorist attacks, domestic mass shootings and financial meltdowns. Today we find ourselves adjusting our fundraising approaches in the face of a global health crisis and unprecedented turmoil in the economy. We are navigating our way through uncharted terrain — a crisis without a defined horizon.

The rapid rate of change, worsening news about the spread of coronavirus and uncertainties about when we will turn a corner toward recovery have left many of our colleagues at public media stations searching for answers on how to move forward. One thing is clear to me: Now is not the time to pause fundraising in public media; it is the time to adjust and press on.

At Contributor Development Partnership, we are able to draw upon the largest repository of fundraising data in public media to identify fundraising trends and develop and adjust strategies and messaging. Our entire team is working tirelessly, and remotely, to help stations manage through this unprecedented challenge.

Recognizing this is a very fluid situation, here are some immediate thoughts on the best path forward from where we collectively stand right now.

Strengthening our community role

Many public media stations around the country are serving their communities in ways that are at the core of their public service mission — by producing and distributing programming that educates, inspires and entertains; by acting as conveners of community leaders, policy makers and subject matter experts; by deploying educational, public safety and other community services; and by reporting as a trusted source for clear, concise, fact-based information. During this crisis, stations have a unique opportunity to remind their audiences of the critical roles they play in the ongoing health of their communities. This work is only possible with donor support. 

The public is distracted, nervous and uncertain about when we might reach a turning point back to something akin to normalcy. With COVID-19 affecting a disproportionate number of senior citizens, some of public media’s most loyal donors are at greater risk than the general public. The lives of our donors stand to be far more disrupted than the population at large. With the devastating losses in the stock market, donors will begin making tough decisions about their philanthropy. While the circumstances we’re dealing with today may be different from previous crises, know this: In such situations, donors don’t stop giving. They simply give to fewer organizations. 

This is why it’s critical that public media remains high on the consideration lists of individual donors.

When it comes to positioning and messaging, stations must accentuate the brand attributes that are the hallmark of public media — clarity, accuracy, accessibility, truthfulness, trust, objectivity and reliability. And most importantly of all, they must reaffirm the notion of being a local public service. Now more than ever, it is time to remind donors of our time-tested role in local communities.

Adjusting our fundraising channels

CDP draws upon data from 180 public media stations and collaboratively manages more than 700,000 active donors in support of our partner stations. We oversee nearly $100 million in membership activities annually, and that leverage means our service partners, vendors and technology providers continue to work around the clock with little or no disruption to our fundraising services thus far. 

Keep in mind, pledge drives do more than just raise money, they tell the public that you are community supported. If you don’t tell donors you are worthy of their support, there are plenty of other nonprofits working hard to do so on their own behalf.

As a curator of best practices, we glean new insights every day from the membership programs that are underway across the county. Last week, we talked with development leaders from more than 30 of the nation’s largest nonprofits about how they are adjusting to this new climate for fundraising.  

Here are some of the adjustments we are executing for CDP members. I recommend that all stations take these steps as a result of this crisis:

On-air pledge — Adjust your messaging and revenue expectations but keep going if at all possible. We are certainly not operating as business as usual, and we need to recognize what’s happening to our audiences. 

More people are watching and listening, and they are undoubtedly taking this time to focus on themselves and their family and friends. They are also reassessing their priorities and taking stock of their lives.

On broadcast television, forego pledging ticket-driven shows for now and look to programs that focus on physical, spiritual and financial health. Self-help programs may resonate in new ways with audiences. We are seeing evidence that this genre of pledge shows is working well for many public TV stations. 

On radio, don’t “cover” the news — cover the news. NPR news and local information are mission-critical, so it’s important to keep news programs and other services largely in place. You can shape fundraising messaging to fit the tone, but don’t be afraid to ask for donations.

For music stations, your content provides a critical escape when people need to disconnect from the news of the day — fundraising messaging should be part of the mix.

Keep in mind, pledge drives do more than just raise money, they tell the public that you are community-supported. If you don’t tell donors you are worthy of their support, there are plenty of other nonprofits working hard to do so on their own behalf. 

As you consider how to proceed with your on-air drives, consider that several large, national nonprofits are considering investing more in direct-response television ads. More people are watching television, and these nonprofits want to promote the mission-driven work that they’re doing during this crisis.

If you must cancel a drive, you can minimize revenue losses by explaining the decision to your audience. Run on-air spots to remind them that, even though the spring on-air campaign was canceled, your need for community support remains high. Encourage donors to contribute through other channels — including direct mail, email and online — and do so with a sense of urgency. At every opportunity, remind the audience that they may be listening and watching more than ever, and that this trusted, community-supported service remains free and accessible to all. 

Major donors — Stay in touch with donors whom you consider your most important relationships. Check in on them to let them know they are in your thoughts. We advise against attempting to schedule in-person donor visits. Instead, revert to phone, email, videoconferencing and handwritten notes where appropriate. Be prepared to reaffirm your station’s role in the community during this turbulent time and highlight the value of public media. Help donors understand that especially in times like these, public media is a critical service to your community. Remind them of the many on-air and online services available, with an emphasis on news, educational content and children’s programming. 

Direct mail — Continue mailing and adjust your messaging where possible. Donors will understand if certain pieces have already dropped that haven’t been updated. However, hitting the right tone with that next message is very important. Utilize buck slips and rewrite copy wherever possible. As long as USPS can deliver your mail, you should be sending it. At least for now, our mailboxes are an important connection to the world.

Events — We recommend suspending public events of any size for at least the next three months — or until we see a safe horizon. Consider virtual engagements via social or other streaming platforms like Twitch. A recent example of a successful virtual event involved the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston-based band that performed their annual St. Patrick’s Day concert as a streaming event with nearly 200,000 attendees. What other nonprofits or universities can you partner with to produce a virtual event?

Canvassing — Because of the need to prevent community spread, pause all door-to-door and street canvassing. If possible, hold on to your canvassers and redeploy them to other tasks. Rebooting the program and training all new people will be that much more difficult when it’s safe to stop social distancing. 

Sustainers — This is where we recommend focusing most of our efforts. Sustainers will help buoy stations through these turbulent times. Concentrate on recapturing failed sustainer payments and administering ongoing program maintenance — this is really important right now.

Many nonprofits are starting to see a spike in cancellations, and public media stations should brace for requests from sustainers to end their monthly gifts. Make sure your customer service team has a robust “saves” script for handling these calls. CDP recommends offering a 90-day pause on payments as an alternative to an outright cancellation. One effective way to prevent sustainer losses is to make timely outbound phone calls to those who have missed a payment.  Just as you would prepare for a conversation with a major donor, make sure your callers have talking points that make a strong case for public media and the unique role you play in the community.

Passport — People of all ages now have a lot more time to watch broadcast and streaming services. Disney+ is reporting a significant spike in new sign-ups. Now is the time to promote Passport to our constituents. Consider increasing your promotion of Passport to prospects and redoubling your efforts to encourage existing donors to activate their Passport accounts. These efforts will demonstrate the value of being a member, help build viewer loyalty and improve donor retention.

Bracing for the financial impact

With a recession now officially underway, every station will see immediate revenue shortfalls. The impact of this crisis will linger for months and years. It is important that public media organizations cut nonessential expenses, adjust their operating budgets and tightly manage cashflow to ensure long-term sustainability. 

CDP reviewed historical data for public broadcasting, including the 2008 financial crisis, to develop guidance for our members. We believe stations should be prepared to experience budget shortfalls of up to 20% against goals for the fourth-quarter of fiscal 2020 (for stations whose fiscal cycle ends June 30). Those that persevere with fundraising now will fare better, albeit with diminishing yields, than those that shut down their efforts and wait for the crisis to pass and the economy to rebound. 

With FY21 budget planning in full swing at many stations, expect more revenue challenges and strong fundraising headwinds. We are anticipating a sharp decline in membership revenue — between 10% and 15% — and a drop in total member count of up to 10%. New donors will be especially hard to come by; look for a drop of 15% or more in the number of new members.  

On a brighter note, we expect that multiyear retention rates and revenues will likely hold flat for those stations that aggressively manage their sustainer programs.

We’re in uncharted territory, and each station and each market is unique. Leaders of all stations should do their own budget analyses and be ready to respond to an ever-changing environment. 

We are also recommending that station managers and fundraising professionals bring a laser focus and sense of urgency toward preserving net income. This crisis provides you with an opportunity to reevaluate where you are spending precious operational and developmental resources.  Focus on the core mission activities and eliminate the “nice-to-haves.” Are there certain operational and fundraising activities that could be eliminated or better managed externally? 

We hope these thoughts have been helpful as you assess your own station’s needs and fundraising challenges. Core to our mission, CDP is a community of stations solving the toughest fundraising challenges. 

The road ahead won’t be an easy one but, social distancing aside, we stand a far better chance of success if we work together than apart.  

Stay safe, but press on. The American people are counting on us. 

Michal Heiplik is EVP and a co-founder of the Contributor Development Partnership, a Boston-based public benefit corporation that provides fundraising solutions, marketing strategies, technology innovations and data and analytics services to more than 230 public radio and television stations. As a 20-year veteran of public broadcasting development, he has extensive experience in database management, membership development and in identifying effective fundraising practices.  

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