If you don’t listen to public radio, let me explain a little bit about how their fundraisers work. Two or three times a year they have fundraising campaigns. These campaigns break into the regular programming twice an hour, every hour, for up to ten minutes at a time, until they meet their fundraising goal. If they don’t meet their goal by the end of the campaign, they don’t stop the fundraising breaks. They keep right on going.
My public radio station has two fundraising periods a year. That’s what they call it, a “fundraising period.” This has all kinds of weird connotations for me. What feeling are they trying to evoke here? Fundraising punctuation? Fundraising menstrual cycle? Obviously they are referring to their fundraising campaigns, but this word choice is weird and I can’t help but wonder how many other people are put off by it.
I was driving a lot during this last fundraising cycle (I’m always driving a lot, but that’s beside the point). I kept hearing the same fundraising faux pas again and again, and I really wish I could talk to the station about these decisions.
1. Prizes, prizes, prizes. Public radio fundraisers love to talk about what you get as a prize in return for your donation. They spend comparatively little time talking about how your donation benefits public radio and helps them provide you with quality programming. Where I am in California, this means a lot of talk about earthquake preparedness kits.
They’ll talk about this kit, or another prize, for three of the five minutes in the break. Then they’ll spend a minute on the solicitation and another minute giving out the phone number. The balance of time here is all wrong.
The emphasis should be on the solicitation: how the station uses donations, what they are able to offer in terms of programming, etc. Putting so much emphasis on the gift you receive for your donation causes people to save their donation until they hear about a gift that interests them. Some people who would normally be interested in donating, may never donate at all because none of the gifts appeal to them.
2. Letting the campaign run long. Allowing the fundraising campaign to continue for as long as it takes to meet the goal makes it obvious to regular listeners when a campaign hasn’t met the goal. If you normally listen to public radio and you know that their campaigns typically last one month, you are going to notice when that campaign suddenly stretches over two months. This makes it look as if the campaign wasn’t a success, because it wasn’t. And no one likes donating to failing campaigns.
3. Focusing on the match. Each fundraising break typically includes a donation match. Sometimes it’s a 1:1 match, a 2:1 match, a 3:1 match; it varies from day to day, throughout the campaign. A lot of emphasis is placed on what the match is for that day, which eats into the precious minutes that could be used to talk about how the donations benefit listeners of public radio.
Donations to public radio provide free radio, trusted reporting, and quality programming from local hosts you know and love. It’s not hard to talk those things up, they just choose not to.
4. The recording line. When you donate to public radio they route your call to a recording line. Like on an answering machine, you only have one shot to leave your message. The public radio station then screens these messages and plays them on the air. As you might imagine this can lead to some very interesting results.
Why not have a live human being on the other end of that recording line? This person could ask questions that generate good quality sound bites for the radio station. When you donate to public radio, you make your donation to a real person, which I love, but then they send you to this automated recording line. I think they’d generate better, longer, and more useful testimonials if they included another human in the process.
5. Ignoring sustaining members. Public radio has something called sustaining membership. This means that you give monthly over a sustained period of time, which they hope means in perpetuity. If you are a sustaining member at a certain level you get to skip the fundraising campaigns. They email you a link which lets you listen to public radio without the fundraising breaks. I think this is a mistake. They are missing out on an opportunity to re-engage with current sustaining donors and potentially getting some of them to increase their gifts.
6. Boring music. This is going to seem nitpicky after my other points, but I really wish they would play some upbeat music during the fundraising breaks and encourage their local production crew to sound excited about fundraising. Most of the time they sound completely over it.
What do you wish public radio did differently with their fundraising? Let me know in the comments.