Broadcasting a Plea for Big Gifts
Television stations overhaul approach they use to raise money
William and Delia Purdy had been giving to KCTS, their public-television station in Seattle, for more than 20 years when they decided to make a fivefold increase in the amount they give annually.
Until two years ago, the couple gave $250 to $500 annually in response to on-air pledge drives. Since then, in addition to increasing their annual contribution, they also made a five-figure gift for a sum they won't disclose.
Mr. Purdy, a retired small-business owner, says the gifts were made to encourage the new direction of the station, which has hired a new president and taken steps to eliminate debt.
But the couple was also responding to a nationwide effort to increase the number of individuals who make gifts of $1,000 or more to public-television stations.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is spending $8-million to make fundamental changes in the way more than 100 public-television stations approach affluent donors, stepping up invitations to exclusive events tied to television programming and cultural affairs, designing special appeals, and
Public-television stations undertook the effort after consultants the corporation hired projected that a well-orchestrated campaign to seek large gifts from individuals, including bequests and other estate gifts, could lift contributions by as much as $35-million a year nationwide, in effect
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has not yet tallied how much stations have raised since the more-aggressive efforts got under way, but a spotcheck of more than a dozen stations found that gifts of $1,000 or more had increased by at least 10 percent at each station.
While many charities have been actively seeking big gifts, the shift in emphasis for broadcast stations has been somewhat trickier than for other nonprofit groups. Most stations raise the bulk of their gifts from individuals by holding on-air pledge drives and offering token gifts, such as a tote
Now public-television stations want to persuade donors to focus on how they can help others, rather than on the benefits to themselves. In the process, the stations hope to cultivate a cadre of small donors into highly involved philanthropists who work hand in hand with stations to create new
Mr. Purdy is one donor who feels more involved in the station's operations. In a recent phone conversation with the major-gifts manager at KCTS, for example, he recalls asking her, "So, how are we doing?"
KCTS is doing pretty well. Last year, the dollar amount raised through donations of $1,000 or more and through planned giving rose by more than 80 percent, from about $540,000 in 2004 to more than $984,000 last year.
The free DVDs and other gifts that the couple formerly got from KCTS pledge drives pale in comparison to invitations and offers they now receive. Their first increase in annual giving, for instance, came after they attended a luncheon held at the Seattle Space Needle with Jim Lehrer, host of PBS's
Stations participating in the national fund-raising project receive plenty of free assistance. They are required to send the station's board president or other key trustee to a two-day session that provides the basics of raising big gifts; stations' general managers and chief fund raisers must
The effort reflects increasing concern throughout the public-broadcasting system that fund raising as it has been carried out in the past 40 to 50 years is not generating sufficient contributions, especially as local and state governments have been cutting back their support of the stations.
Meanwhile, response to on-air pledge drives, still the backbone of fund raising at many stations, has been steadily declining since 1990, according to a McKinsey and Company report. Donations garnered from pledge drives declined by $17-million, adjusting for inflation. In 2003, the last year for
At the same time, a few big gifts, such as a $200-million bequest from Joan Kroc to National Public Radio in 2003, have caused public-broadcasting officials to realize that big gifts from individuals are one possible solution to their money woes.
So far, the biggest challenge for stations in the project has been replacing the short-term focus of the pledge drive with "a culture of relationship building with donors," says Robert Altman, former chief development officer of the Public Broadcasting Service, who designed the project's training
Now, he adds, "we're stretching people's timelines to think about the investment of the relationship that will build over time."
Donors who give money because they want to receive a DVD or other item tend to be less loyal than others and are unlikely to make repeat donations unless they are offered token thank-you presents, direct-marketing experts say. Roger Craver, founder of Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company, an
"It's a real confusion of identification," he says. "Are they merchandise buyers or are they donors? For 20 years I've been saying that public broadcasters made a mistake when they started giving out coffee mugs."
Still, Mr. Craver says, he thinks public-television officials can successfully wean donors away from the idea that they will always get a gift in return for their donation.
WJCT, in Jacksonville, Fla., is one station that has already succeeded. Since it joined the major-gifts effort in 2004, the number of donors who give $1,000 or more has nearly doubled, from 65 donors to 121, an increase of about 86 percent. Tim McDowell, the station's director of major and planned
"I was skeptical at the beginning," Mr. McDowell says. "But by the end, I thought the initiative was worth its weight in gold."
In addition to changing the short-term mindset, public-broadcasting stations have also had to teach their fund raisers, chief executives, and trustees how to ask for big gifts. Mr. Altman and other experts have focused on helping them explain what public television provides to viewers and others,
"We are not perceived by the community as a charity or needing money because we're not doling out soup or providing shelter," says Mr. McDowell.
Stations such as WTVP, in Peoria, Ill., worked with the consultants on exercises to clarify their missions and values. John Morris, WTVP's vice president for development, says those discussions led the station to develop a crisp two-word statement that sums up why the station exists: "Minds
Other stations have worked to expand special programming by connecting potential donors with projects that interest them personally.
Kirkland K. Hamill, director of development at Maine Public Broadcasting Network, in Lewiston, says that he has started asking donors, "What lasting impact do you want to have that we can help fulfill?" - in one case spending several months in lengthy discussions with a wealthy prospective donor
The woman, who is a Maine-history buff, has pledged $1-million over four years, so the station, which has an annual budget of $12-million, can produce a series on key events in the state's development. She also plans to make the station a beneficiary of her estate.
Many station fund raisers say that the fund-raising project would not have been as successful if board members weren't required to attend training sessions and encouraged to make contributions, and participate in solicitations to secure big donations.
"Bringing the board members in and letting them see why a major-gifts program is so important has been the most helpful piece," says Bonnie Rabicoff, vice president of development at KCPT Public Broadcasting, in Kansas City, Mo.
She says the station recently developed a job description for its trustees, which Ms. Rabicoff says provides "a realistic expectation of what we need from board members."
Another station, KNPB, in Reno, Nev., has instituted a point system to improve board members' efforts to raise money.
Starting this month, board members will earn points for activities such as attending board meetings and making contributions.
Coming to a board meeting, for example, earns one point; identifying a potential donor who can give $1,000 or more is worth two points; and making a donation of at least that much is worth five points.
Board members are expected to earn at least 35 points a year.
"This is more of a self-evaluation tool for now, and eventually a board member will keep track," says Angela Cao, KNPB's director of major-donor programs. "It's not meant to punish anyone. It's about encouraging people to get more engaged."
Once stations identify potential donors with the means to make big gifts, some have used special events to find those who are most interested in their work.
KCTS, in Seattle, has been holding luncheons and dinners when PBS personalities come to town.
Along with people who already give big sums, the station has been inviting people who have been making small gifts but are affluent enough to give more.
In addition to the luncheon that the Purdys attended with Mr. Lehrer, the station plans to hold a town hall meeting with David Brancaccio, host of Now, a PBS news show, later this month, followed by a private reception for the station's most-generous donors.
While other stations also hold events to woo big donors, KCTS has found such activities even more important because of the financial woes it suffered a few years ago.
In 2003, the station was saddled with $7-million in debt and had to lay off more than 20 staff members. One year later, after a change in leadership and more-vigorous fund-raising efforts, the station ended the year in the black for the first time in five years.
By holding special events, the station can reinforce to donors that it is "alive and well and vital," says Jan Knutson, KCTS's major- gifts manager.
The events have helped attract big money.
At a celebration of the station's 50th anniversary, KCTS invited Robert MacNeil, who founded the NewsHour program with Mr. Lehrer, to give a speech at the luncheon; a placecard at each person's setting gently requested a donation.
Ms. Knutson says the station brought in $30,000 from the 150 guests at the lunch.
Still, most public-television fund raisers say that events themselves are not necessarily good money winners, but are instead mainly an effective way to meet and thank donors who will eventually make large gifts.
WVIA Public Television and Radio, in Pittston, Pa., began a series of events to identify new major donors and, over the course of a year and a half, held 17 gatherings, including small dinner parties and live musical performances at the station.
A few weeks after a dinner party for potential donors at a board member's house, the station sent a solicitation to each person who attended.
For nearly a year, the station received nothing from one of the donors, but last month the donor made a gift of $1,000.
Sue Dantona Jolley, vice president of major gifts at the station, says such a lag time can be frustrating, but is something stations have to accept. "The need is right now, but the process is longer."
But it is not just donors who take a long time to increase their giving.
Adjusting public-television stations' internal operations and perceptions among staff and board members to compete for large gifts, fund raisers say, has taken just as long - if not longer.
"It's sort of like moving a glacier," says Mr. Hamill at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. "It moves, but it takes longer than you think it's supposed to."
Debra E. Blum contributed to this article.