Public media’s fundraising outlook shows signs for hope amid challenges

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Mike Janssen, using DALL-E 3

A new report from Contributor Development Partnership shows stations had mixed results in fundraising last year, with radio stations in particular struggling to attract new donors. Published Wednesday, the report draws on CDP’s pool of station data to highlight public media’s financial position as it entered 2024. Though some stations face challenges, the report’s authors see cause for optimism in coming months. The full report can be read here. This introduction is republished here with the permission of the authors.

Welcome to the 2024 State of Fundraising for Public Media report. The findings in this report are drawn from data contributed by more than 200 public media organizations that participated in CDP’s National Reference File in December 2023.

Early reporting for national nonprofit fundraising indicates that 2023 was a difficult year, as consumer confidence lagged in the face of ongoing high grocery prices and despite otherwise strong economic indicators. Through the third quarter of 2023, the Fundraising Effectiveness Project was reporting an 8% decline in donors and a 1% decline in revenue from individuals. Likewise, GivingTuesday revenue was flat with a 10% decline in donors, as reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Overall, public media experienced similarly flat results for revenue but fared better for donor counts with a 2% increase. These results were driven by television and joint licensees, which had the greatest number of donors and highest revenue in decades. For radio, the story is quite different, especially for new donor acquisition, which has experienced ongoing declines.

The pandemic quarantine of 2020 ushered in a dramatic acceleration of shifting audience behavior for both television and radio. For television, this played out in the shift from live broadcast viewing to streaming. With the launch of Passport in 2016, television has so far managed to absorb the impact of declining live audience on pledge.

For radio, declines in audience due to expanding platforms for audio and news content significantly worsened, catching public radio off guard. Though some music formats are enjoying solid rates of listening, news stations are seeing crisis-level declines with great impact on new-donor acquisition.

As we head into an election year fraught with extreme divisiveness and harsh rhetoric, we are cautioned by global leaders to pay heed to the dangers of disinformation and societal polarization. Trust in our national institutions is falling, including in nonprofits and news media, according to an Independent Sector report.

But there is a light for public media organizations that is actually very bright. The Independent Sector report found that trust in local organizations is quite high within their communities. And many Americans say they trust PBS and NPR more than any other news outlet. If stations can work together to amplify their trusted voices, we believe that audience — whether in the form of viewing, listening or website visits — can grow, and the financial benefit will follow.

There is more good news: the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and CCS Fundraising predict total giving will increase by 4.2% in 2024 based on growth in income, personal wealth and the S&P 500.

We believe these encouraging economic growth predictions and a robust news cycle signal an environment ripe for innovation and success when stations remain flexible, nimble and, most importantly, collaborative.

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