How WETA focuses on improving retention to boost value of Passport donations

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Public TV stations are constantly looking for ways to improve fundraising performance and the donor experience with PBS Passport, the streaming service for their members and donors.

Development teams at WETA and other stations have been experimenting with strategies for increasing the value of Passport donors beyond the $60 minimum gift. Apart from limited campaigns, such as offering a Roku or other premiums along with Passport, most of these efforts have been unsuccessful.  

Over the last 21 months, WETA has discovered our most successful technique yet. Instead of trying to increase the average gift of Passport donors, we’ve focused on improving retention. We’ve made substantial progress by creating a new “annual sustainer” option for Passport donors to automatically renew their memberships.

At WETA, Passport monthly sustainers have close to an 80% first-year retention rate, while retention of our new one-time Passport donors is less than 35%. We asked, “What would happen if we try to convert our one-time donors to annual sustainers?” By offering automatic renewals to annual gifts, we thought the retention rate might increase to 50% or 60%. 

Since we introduced the annual sustainer option in late 2019, the retention rate has been impressive, much better than we anticipated. Of all the annual sustainers acquired from January through May 2020, 81% made their next sustainer gift during the same month one year later. At this point, we have a large sample size and enough experience to back up these results.

How we did it

To create the annual sustainer option, we changed WETA’s online donation form. On the one-time gift option, we added a pre-filled checkbox that indicates the donor’s agreement to automatically renew at the same time each year. The form also states that the donor can update or cancel their membership at any time.

The response from annual sustainers has exceeded our expectations. In 2020, the year we introduced the program, regular one-time gifts decreased by half, and recurring annual gifts grew to 21% of all donations. Monthly sustaining gifts also grew by almost 5%.

We wondered how donors would react to the online giving experience and made sure that our messaging reinforced how an annual sustaining gift works. At the time of the donor’s initial contribution, we explain that their annual sustaining donation will be renewed at the same time each year. That explanation also appears in the automated response to the donation. In the days leading up to the subsequent annual sustainer gift, we notified them by email that their account would be charged once again.

Complaints at both steps of the process — first-time donation and renewal — have been minimal.

Going into this experiment, we defined a series of questions that would help us measure success. Here’s where we are so far:

1. Will donors choose to become annual sustainers? YES

2. Is the monthly sustainer ratio — i.e., the percentage of Passport monthly sustainers vs. one-time donors — maintained (and not adversely affected)? YES

The percentage of monthly sustainers has actually increased since we introduced the annual sustainer option.

3. Do annual sustainers renew at a higher rate than one-time Passport donors? YES

4. Are annual sustainers satisfied with this experience? YES

We definitely encourage other public TV fundraisers to give this a try! And If you’d like more information about how we did it, feel free to contact us. We are going to continue to monitor how donors respond. Hopefully, this positive trend will continue!

Alicia Salmoni, WETA’s senior director of direct response fundraising, has more than 25 years of experience in membership marketing, prospect research and development operations for cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and GBH in Boston.

Brandon Hemel, senior director of data strategy and management, has more than 20 years of fundraising experience, including managing events, direct response donor acquisition and membership analytics for national and local nonprofits. His campaigns have been recognized with a Direct Marketing Association of Washington Maxi Award and a DMA International Echo Award.

Jeff Regen is VP of membership marketing and development services and is also co-chair of the Passport Station Users Group, which works with PBS, stations and other public media partners to effectively grow streaming and revenue with the PBS Video App and Passport. Prior to joining WETA in 2012, Regen led fundraising and digital innovation teams at fundraising and customer relationship management agencies and at Defenders of Wildlife.

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