PBS hires online-giving firm, gives sparse details of plan

Published in Current, June 7, 2010
By Dru Sefton

An online fundraising consulting firm is now onboard to help PBS make its controversial move to gather donations directly through  PBS.org. That’s one of the few concrete details that the network has revealed so far about its plan to fish in the potentially massive national pool for donors prospects and cash for the stations as well as to cover national programs and services.

The announcement of the contract came during a standing-room-only — and sometimes contentious — session during the PBS National Meeting last month in Austin, Texas.

M+R Strategic Services in Washington will design the effort. It has worked for clients including the World Wildlife Fund, AARP and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. M+R was selected for its experience with membership-based nonprofits that, like PBS, have a national headquarters and many local affiliates, said Brian Reddington, PBS’s new senior v.p. for development, who started work in March.

A number of station execs remain nervous that their local online donations could be overtaken by the national reach of PBS.org, with more than 10 million unique visitors per month. PBS insists that it must create new revenue streams by taking advantage of those numbers, and that it will pass on most of the proceeds and all the contact information to member stations.

The portion of any donations going to PBS could help it keep up with rising costs, and pay for new initiatives, when the stations have been unable or unwilling to pay higher dues for them. But it would put PBS in direct contact with individual donors for the first time — a cash source the stations have generally reserved for their own support.

Reddington sought to reassure the leery Austin crowd. “What you should take away from this today is, the system is going to be involved in the construction of this program. The revenue- and name-sharing will all be transparent and organized and orchestrated with input from the system.”

But when PBS leaders opened the floor for questions from station reps, the tone was skeptical from the start. “When you’re talking about online fundraising, you’ve always been fuzzy. What are the details? What do you mean?” (“We have a lot to figure out,” Reddington replied.) “What about an overlap market situation? The donor could be in the same ZIP code as several stations.” (“That just takes a little more coordination,” Reddington said.)

Only one other specific of PBS’s plan emerged: The online campaign will launch in early fall.

“I think the stress in the meeting reflected what we were hearing, which was just talking points,” Jon Miskowski, Wisconsin Public TV director of development told Current. “That’s a legitimate place to start. But many development folks are very practically minded. They don’t want platitudes, they want to know specifics.”

“Everybody understands the revenue stress that PBS is under,” Miskowski said, “but I think we have yet to hear a clear description of this. There just aren’t enough details.”

Scott Sauer, outgoing chair of the PBS Development Advisory Committee and a fundraiser from WMHT in Albany, N.Y., echoed that sentiment. “I think the pushback in the room was because the stations don’t know how project itself is laid out in detail. Maybe there are misunderstandings about its intentions and goals.”

PBS’s reach for individual donations comes at a time when network budget-cutting is reducing the staff it devoted to helping stations raise funds. The positions of the four PBS Development staffers who specialized in several kinds of station fundraising have been eliminated as of June 15. The function will be merged into a new effort to help train station staffers, for which PBS is hiring two employees and a director of professional development.

Miskowski fears the change will diminish assistance to weaker stations that need training to improve their fundraising. “PBS Development has been the source that moved that forward,” he said. “Some stations will continue to move forward, but . . .  if we start losing stations, we’re in trouble. . . . I know what that development department has meant to a vast number of stations.”

The changes at PBS Development are part of PBS’s latest Strategic Plan, first shared with station execs at the spring round robin meetings.

PBS leaders are trying to bring stations along, stressing the potential strength of PBS.org as a generator of donations and names of prospective donors. PBS would funnel contact info for prospects along with “the majority” of the proceeds to the stations, Reddington told the Austin crowd, with Chief Operating Officer Michael Jones adding, “PBS needs to recover its costs.”

As Joyce Herring, senior v.p. of station services, explained at the meeting, “We believe that some of those millions of users of PBS.org can be converted into donors on a national level. And we believe that revenue can be shared with stations, so 347 stations don’t have to replicate this.”

“I think PBS is sorely behind the times on this,” she added. “Most large organizations have online giving opportunities.”

Miskowski agreed. He was on the E-Membership Advisory Group in 2001, which had a similar goal — “leverage PBS.org to deliver pre-qualified potential members to stations’ Web sites, and provide stations access to the infrastructure to cultivate and transact with current and future members online,” according to a PBS Development memo from that year.

The system has been debating the online fundraising issue at least since then, Miskowski said. “Unless PBS has some real stake in the game and an incentive, we’ll continue to talk about what could be done,” he said. “I don’t think we should stand in way of PBS. All things over the years that could have been done to steer this opportunity to stations hasn’t been done.”

“Sure, the economic times couldn’t be worse. We can ramp up distrust, or we can say, ‘Do things in a new way that we’ve never done before.’”

In the Austin session, as questions from the crowd became more pointed and heads began to vigorously shake,  Jones rose from the audience like a preacher to take over the meeting from Reddington — who said from the podium, “You’re the boss.”

Jones attempted to calm and unify the audience. He acknowledged that the idea of PBS raising money directly is “touchy,” he said, but “we have to look at the reality of the situation.... We need alternate plans to bring in revenue or we’ll keep looking at tightening budgets, reducing staff and programming.”

“I didn’t come here to be part of an organization that is cutting itself into oblivion—to preside over a dying entity,” he said, his voice rising. “Sure, [national online fundraising] is a risk. And we may step on your toes a bit — but it’s not intentional. We want to increase revenues for the entire system.” 

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Web page posted June 18, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC


Online auctions: Allure lingers despite the Kruse debacle, 2005.

Online pledging is just one tool in the toolbox for making pledge drives short and sweet, according to sweetness-oriented development directors, 2005.

Online giving: More donors want e-relationships, 2008

PBS entrusts key funding job to Reddington, good friend of network president, 2010


M + R Strategic Services, consultant to PBS

PBS news release: PBS to expand national fundraising efforts and local support for member stations, March 1, 2010.

PBS photos of 2010 Annual Meeting, on Flickr.

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