Public Radio Fundraising Changeup
October 1, 2012 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Our local public radio station has switched up their fundraising tactics for their fall fund drive, and I'm curious about the change. Anyone have any insider knowledge in public radio fundraising?

The local NPR news station (WBUR) seems to have changed up their fundraising strategy for their fall fund drive. About three years ago, they changed their fundraisers from the typical 10 day drives to 5 day, "all the money in half the time" shortened fund drives with a several week "pre-fundraising" session that only had short interstitials instead of the lengthy "call in now!" blather. Up until the fund drive going on right now, the focus was on lump sum contributions.

This time around, during their pre-fundraising drive I noticed they started using the phrase "all the members in half the time" and now that the fund drive has started in earnest the focus has been almost entirely on monthly contributions instead of lump sum donations. So, rather than "Support us with a $120 donation and we'll give you a gift card to this local restaurant!" the message has been transformed into "Support with a $10 per month pledge and we'll give you a gift card to this local restaurant!"

Is there anyone on the inside that can shed some light on this? I'm curious about the psychology behind it and if this is happening elsewhere. Does NPR direct fundraising activities at local stations at all, or are the stations basically on their own for these kinds of decisions?
posted by backseatpilot to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not on the inside for this with public radio, but it fits in pretty snugly with the stuff I've seen volunteering for organizations in the past few years. People get tired of hearing the same pitches all the time, and they get very tired of being asked for money. Trying to do it for an extended period of time ends up turning people off. It's better to do it in shorter bursts, keep the energy higher, don't let it taper off into desperation.

The ongoing-gifts thing seems to have gotten big across the board. Once somebody's signed up for a monthly gift, it's not a one-time thing, it's a habit. It's in their budget. Way more likely to see it continued for the following year, I think--and that's presuming it's monthly pledges for a year and not an 'until you cancel' arrangement where you'd be surprised the number of people who won't make a single phone call to avoid the $10 coming out of their account monthly. It's also way easier to talk someone out of $10 ongoing than $120 once, because the hit at any given time is much smaller.

The push I've seen for lump-sum donations now tends to focus on trying to get information to people doing estate planning about making charitable gifts a part of their plans. The numbers there tend to be way larger.
posted by gracedissolved at 6:24 AM on October 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

People get tired of hearing the same pitches all the time, and they get very tired of being asked for money. Trying to do it for an extended period of time ends up turning people off.

I can second this from personal experience. I once did phone fundraising for a regional public radio station whose brilliant idea was to call up people who had donated, about a month after their donation, to ask for another one. Needless to say we got a lot of screaming, grunting, and "Well NOW I'm never gonna give you guys money EVER AGAIN" and so forth.
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:37 AM on October 1, 2012

Our local station (WRVO) changed up their tactics a couple years ago, too--now they have it set up so that if they get enough donations before their on-air fundraising, they cut the fundraising days by x amount depending on how much they get. Last year we had just 24 hours of on-air fundraising because of this.

Not really answering your question, but further evidence of fundraising changes. :)
posted by xyzzy at 6:38 AM on October 1, 2012

I know that once you agree to a monthly donation on a credit card, that you'll probably just let it go in perpetuity, versus having to convince you all over again, every year, to donate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I signed up for a $20/month contribution with my local public radio station 6 years ago. As Ruthless Bunny suggests, I've just left the automatic withdrawal untouched ever since. I don't even get a gift any more, which is fine. I would not have given nearly as much to public radio if I'd been asked for lump sum gift every year.
posted by Area Man at 7:02 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think the big thing is that they know that once you have a recurring credit card payment you're unlikely to cancel it, so they don't have to go after you next year. So a $10 a month pledge with attached credit card number is actually way more valuable than a check from $120.

The switch to recurring payments is probably partly technologically motivated, because we're all used to having recurring payments deducted from our checking accounts (where 10 or 20 or even five years ago this was a bit more exotic). And we can mostly do it online rather than calling up some phone bank volunteer and giving her all of our information over the phone.

Also, having moved to Western Mass from the Boston area a couple of years ago, I YEARN for the shorter WBUR pledge drive. Oh, how I miss it during the interminable, apparently months-long WFCR pledge drive.
posted by mskyle at 7:04 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and psychologically the reason they get more from the recurring donation is that they effectively change the decision to donate from being a yearly opt-in donation to an opt-out decision. Donating becomes the default, and the giver has to take action to stop donating. In the book Nudge they call this kind of thing "choice architecture."
posted by mskyle at 7:08 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a great article on why it is important that WBUR have more subscribing listeners:

WBUR recently dealt with a hospital that wanted to buy underwriting and asked for a direct role in the editorial process in exchange, Fleming said. “It was alarming because we had never heard anything like this before,” he said. Such practices do occur in commercial media and create an expectation among underwriters that public stations could be amenable to similar arrangements, he said.
posted by parmanparman at 7:13 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Psychologically, "$10 per month" sounds much more do-able than the lump sum of $120. It may also actually be more do-able for many people to shell-out the monthly sum than the lump sum.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:21 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is also a barrier to calling in, much less giving if the requested amount feels too high.

So the new tactic of just getting you on the phone increases donations because people who can only afford (or are only willing to give) $5 a month are more willing to start the process. They don't fear that someone on the other end will make them feel stingy for not contributing a dollar a day. They don't feel like they're wasting someone's time tying up the phones when the big donation might be coming any second now.

It's expectation management. Once the radio station makes their expectations clear, then the hurdles drop away. $5 a month is better than $0, and they know it. They just want to make sure the listener knows it.

It also reinforces the idea that this is Public radio, that everyone can contribute, even if it doesn't seem like much, it adds up. Waiting for someone with a bigger wallet to pay up isn't effective.

Listen closely and you'll also notice matching donations on some programs. This is where donors have pledged additional money in the event that certain goals are met. I don't know how well this works, but it's still happening.

(This is counterintuitive. Most people would say you should ask big big and then take whatever you get. But most people are going to balk at $1,000 suggestions, and it takes a lot more effort/fancier prizes to convince those people than it does the small givers.)
posted by bilabial at 7:21 AM on October 1, 2012

Oh! Also, recurring charges are less expensive to process, because the burden of opening all those checks, tallying them up and taking them to the bank is real.

Fewer checks means fewer chances to lose the checks (or risk having them stolen), fewer bounced check charges (the bank charges the recipient if they've spent the money after the check "clears" but before it's made good by the originating bank.) Because the money from credit card payments is available the day it comes in, there's no waiting for the funds to clear.

You also don't have to do an algorithm on how many people will promise to send a check and then not do it. The size of the gift sometimes prevents people from sending the money. On the other hand, a smaller recurring draft seems like much smaller sacrifice, so they're less likely to bail.
posted by bilabial at 7:26 AM on October 1, 2012

Best answer: I work at a public radio station, but I'm not on the fundraising side of things. We have been encouraging people to sign up for monthly donations for several years.

Yep, it does sound less intimidating. I can give $10 a month no problem, but if someone were to ask me to give $120 right now, that would seem like a lot more money.

Monthly donations help keep cash flow steady throughout the year instead of a few big lumps around fund drives.

We use to offer monthly installments but that meant people still needed to call in every year to have the $10 taken out of their account. Now, they can give $10 a month and get a letter on their "anniversary" letting them know they can cancel it. If they don't, we continue billing their credit or debit card. They of course can cancel at any time. Most people (I think I heard 90%) don't opt out. But when we did it the reverse of asking they'd like to continue less than 20% (I think) continue on. So now that we've switched to the opt-out once you've started system, we're encouraging even more monthly donations.

I'm pretty sure it's happening at lots of stations. There are annual conferences and this sounds like one of the fundraising trends for public radio.
posted by bubonicpeg at 7:29 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regarding matches, for several years Mr. Carmicha and I have made a pretty sizable gift during the pre-pledge drive period that's designed to decrease the length of the fundraising campaign's interference in regular programming. We've then gotten a call from the station asking if they can frame our gift as a match because it helps drive donations. This tactic made me wonder whether there is ever any real risk that the station won't receive the challenge money when they offer a "matched" donation opportunity.
posted by carmicha at 8:07 AM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: The opt-out/opt-in difference sounds like the key here, as well as the smaller monthly dollar amounts. The first time I heard this on the radio the other week, it definitely sounded a lot more snuggly as "we want more members!" versus "we want your money!"

Thanks everyone!
posted by backseatpilot at 8:10 AM on October 1, 2012

I am in fundraising, although not in public radio. The focus on monthly "sustainers" as we call them is prevalent across the non-profit world for all the reasons mentioned above. Cheaper, more reliable, greater lifetime value as donor. Additionally, this has been a very popular way to give for quite a while in Europe. For my organization, which has international offices, the revenue from monthly donors in Europe makes up over 30% of those office's annual revenue, as compared to 10% in the US office.
posted by kimdog at 8:11 AM on October 1, 2012

I think you've got your answers, but anecdotally, Maine Public Radio has successfully gone from week+ long campaigns to one-day campaigns. This is after 4 or so years of working on sustaining memberships over one-time gifts. As a listener (and member), the change has been fantastic.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:37 AM on October 1, 2012

Best answer: I too work at a public radio station, and the place I work has been making a real effort to shorten on-air fundraising simply because it's not the best way to fulfill our mission of, you know, providing news and music and car advice. It's also wildly disruptive to the day-to-day work that goes into running the organization (and we all get fat from "fund drive" food.)

If a station can make the money it needs in other ways (and this includes money saved by month-to-month credit card donations, which are indeed cheaper), it's going to do that. On-line giving has become much more viable in recent years, as well, so that's taken over some of the heavy lifting on-air fundraising used to do.

The "member" thing is slightly controversial. Many stations use it because they feel like people are more likely to give if they're becoming "part" of something--and in some stations' cases, they kind of do, especially music stations that have a lot of members-only events and benefits. Mine doesn't use it because the membership director doesn't want people who can't afford to give to feel like they're not part of the community.

Finally, no, NPR doesn't direct fundraising at local stations, but it does make resources available that stations use to greater or lesser degrees, so sometimes you'll see a big shift in language that will happen across the whole system at once, because of some new info NPR made available. Membership directors also talk to each other, so you'll see a lot of common practices there.

Anyway, that's what I think...and if you're reading this right now, that means you're a supercoollady reader already. But have you done your part? Have you made your call to support the askmefi commenter you use, day in, day out, to get the answers you need? Now's the time. Pick up the phone, or go online. You'll feel so much better once you've done the right thing.
posted by supercoollady at 3:02 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

The 'evergreen' or '10 dollars or any amount a month' option does not expire. Most people will not cancel this and in the long run, they get more money, steady money, for a long period of time.
posted by couchdive at 4:17 PM on October 1, 2012

that's candlepin: Maine Public Radio has successfully gone from week+ long campaigns to one-day campaigns. This is after 4 or so years of working on sustaining memberships over one-time gifts. As a listener (and member), the change has been fantastic.

As a fellow listener/member, I nth this. Before the switch, I can remember a particularly protracted fund drive* (possibly 10 days/2 weeks+) during which the solicitations started sounding rather plaintive. I got a mental picture of drawn, baggy-eyed people living off a supply of what supercoollady calls " 'fund drive' food" that had dwindled to stale bagels and cold coffee.

* Yes, I gave that year. Though I admit I stopped listening to the station once that particular fund drive passed the one-week mark.
posted by virago at 7:48 PM on October 1, 2012

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