Public media campaign aims to help stations reverse new donor slump

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Frank Auer of Contributor Development Partnership says he has some frustrations with Giving Tuesday, the annual effort that encourages donations to nonprofits.

The day feels like “every nonprofit in every town screaming at the top of their lungs to donate to us” as they fight for “share of wallet,” said Auer, CDP’s director of digital marketing. 

He also noticed that donations solicited on Giving Tuesday and local giving days are “fairly low” because donors are spreading gifts among multiple organizations. 

So he came up with the idea for Public Media Giving Days, a two-day event that will aim to attract new donors to stations by encouraging fans to share what they love about public media. 

“What we’re hoping is by focusing this way, we’ll have a great opportunity to sign up sustainers … or we’ll at least get higher average gifts because people will only be donating to public media, Auer said. “They won’t be donating to four, five or six nonprofits,” Auer said. 

The event, which will be held May 1 and 2, is a collaboration among CDP, Greater Public, NPR and PBS. 

The industry is “at a crossroads,” said Melanie Coulson, Greater Public’s executive director for member station services. “We’re trying to figure out how to talk to new audiences and talk to people who haven’t maybe supported us before, haven’t supported us in a long time, or engage with people who, for some reason over the last three years, we’ve lost touch with. So those are big challenges, and it feels like a big strategy where we’re trying something together is a good starting point.”

The first day of Public Media Giving Days will focus on getting people to share on social media why public broadcasting is important to them, using the hashtag #PublicMediaGives. The partner organizations are creating messaging and images that fans can use on their social media accounts. 

“It’s not just about ‘give, give, give,’” Coulson said. 

A fundraising push will come on the second day. Stations will ask supporters who shared their thoughts on the first day to share the station’s donation page with their networks. “We hope at that point not only will people donate but then will share the fact that they donated,” Auer said.

New donor challenges

The idea for Public Media Giving Days comes at a time when public media is struggling to attract new donors. In CDP’s most recent analysis for Current of fundraising trends, CDP President Michal Heiplik called new donor acquisition “one of the most pressing issues facing public media fundraising programs systemwide.” The analysis found that the number of new donors to stations continued to decline into January. 

“We are seeing new member numbers really down year over year,” said Susannah Winslow, CDP’s senior director of innovation and partner services. “In both TV/joint licensees but especially in radio, we’re seeing that at a more rapid pace than we’ve seen in previous years. So now’s the time.”

With Public Media Giving Days, the thinking is that fans of the industry sharing their support will push others who have considered giving but never have, Auer said. 

“I really think there is something here with folks reaching out to their family and their friends to potentially convince them” to donate, he said. 

Partners haven’t set specific monetary or giving targets for the first iteration of Public Media Giving Days. “We don’t really know what success looks like, but we all know it’s worth trying,” Winslow said. “That’s one thing we’ve all talked about as partners. … As a system, we need to continue to try new things and innovate in the way we fundraise as our audiences are increasingly becoming digital audiences and less traditional audiences.”

One goal this year is to gather data to be able to set more specific goals around acquisition or average gifts, Auer said. Another is to have a majority of stations participate. 

“If we’re going to try to build that national story, that national discussion, we need the majority of stations involved to at least mention it in some capacity,” he said. “And if that’s what happens, I think we will have success.”

Flexibility for stations

To encourage station participation, the partners are gathering resources so participants don’t have to develop campaigns from scratch. Partners are working together to give stations flexibility to participate in whatever ways make sense for them. 

“It’s really this collaborative effort among partners to help provide all assets and an entire toolkit with messaging for stations,” CDP’s Winslow said. “So it can be as light of a lift or as heavy of a lift as a station chooses to participate.”

PBS will create TV spots, NPR is developing messages for radio, and Greater Public is writing scripts for stations, she said. All campaign assets for stations are at

NPR stations will be able to access a “special audio feed featuring NPR host and reporter testimonials,” Elyse Poinsett, NPR’s director of marketing strategy, told Current in an email. 

The network chose to participate in part because “growing member support for stations is a top priority at NPR,” Poinsett said.  

“With most reports indicating that donor acquisition is continuing to trend down, the moment is here for us all to take a first, second, and third look at any effort that could turn that around,” Poinsett said. 

Leading up to Public Media Giving Days, the partners will host webinars and roundtables to familiarize stations with the campaign and assets available to them and to get station representatives to share ideas for the campaign. 

For stations that participate, it’s important that they think of it internally as a collaborative effort and that they aim to involve all employees, Winslow said. 

“Staff out there talking to their networks really helps build that buzz in the local community,” she said.

The next webinar to help stations prepare will be held April 6.

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