PBS won’t raise dues income again next year; Kerger warns it may lose capabilities and impact

By Dru Sefton

Paula Kerger wants public TV stations to know that the combination of flat station dues, dwindling resources and balanced budgets may be slowly strangling PBS’s ability to fund new-media innovation. “We can’t continue to go down this path,” the network president told her board March 26 [2010].

PBS’s member stations are strangling, too, and the network probably can’t count on them to contribute more in dues for fiscal year 2011, which starts in July.

The board endorsed a balanced budget — to be sent to stations for comment — that relies on no increases in assessments for member services, program services or fundraising programming.The board also capped at 5 percent any dues increase or decrease levied on an individual station.

Fiscal 2011 will be PBS’s second year in a row without an increase in station support.

Kerger described a dire situation for public TV. “These are pivotal issues we’re wrestling with,” Kerger told the board during its meeting at PBS headquarters in Arlington, Va. “We’re really reaching a point where our ability to continue to move forward could be compromised if we’re not able to bring in new resources and revenue.” If PBS can’t do that, “we may have to whittle down the organization to the point that it doesn’t have the national impact, relevance and importance it should.”

It is “imperative” that PBS actively invest in new technology said board member Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. “I wonder what the implications are for us as we look to the future,” she said, when funding restraints are “inevitably drawing down our reserves and tightening the operating budget.”

Kerger said she is convening a panel of stakeholders to brainstorm potential revenue sources for digital media, as PBS did with its Funding the Vision initiative in 1991. There are great opportunities for PBS in the digital realm, “but we need to have resources,” Kerger said. “We would not want anyone to assume that somehow we can continue with business as usual, that’s not going to take us anywhere.”

Meanwhile, a board task force has resumed work updating the member dues formula in time for the fiscal 2012 budget. The board had planned to adopt a new dues model for 2011 but postponed the change because of the recession. John King of Vermont Public Television, head of the task force, said it continues to examine various formulas for dividing the assessments among member stations, including issues such as discounts and deductions for Program Differentiation Plan stations that buy rights for limited packages of PBS programs.

Kerger hinted at one piece of good news coming up: a “very large grant” within the next year from a trust that was controlled by the late Margaret A. Cargill (story below).

Some truly major giving would draw attention to the PBS Foundation, a high priority for PBS’s new senior v.p. of development, Brian J. Reddington, whose hiring was announced in March.

Comments, questions, tips? seftond@current.org

This article has been corrected. The print edition stated incorrectly that next year would be the third year without a dues increase.

Bequests appear from Cargill heir, a ‘silent philanthropist’

PBS has received $800,000 for its arts initiative, the first part of a bequest to the network from billionaire “silent philanthropist” Margaret A. Cargill.

President Paula Kerger mentioned the “very large grant” during last month’s PBS Board meeting. It came through the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, named for Cargill’s mother, one of Cargill’s three charitable institutions.

Last May PBS received a smaller amount, $50,000 for programming over five years, from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. The foundation, formed in January 2009, is the 22nd-largest in the nation with $2.12 billion in assets, according to the Foundation Center.

Public television was “clearly very, very important to Margaret,” said foundation spokesperson Sallie Gaines. “In her lifetime she was very generous to public TV, anonymously,” particularly her local station, KPBS in San Diego. Cargill’s foundation as well as the Ray trust and Akaloa Resource Foundation, which Cargill reserved for her California donations, now carry on that work. Last year Akaloa gave KPBS $79,000 for an education reporter and $521,000 for local and national programming.

Like NPR benefactor Joan Kroc, she had lived in La Jolla, on the north edge of San Diego.

Jan McNamara, PBS spokesperson, said the network and the Ray Trust are continuing conversations about partnerships.

Cargill, granddaughter of W.W. Cargill, founder of the agricultural commodities giant, died in 2006 at the age of 85. During her life she demanded total anonymity in her charitable giving. Gaines said the philanthropist “felt the focus should always be on the organization providing the service, that was what deserved credit. She was adamant about not taking credit.” Her lifetime donations exceeded $200 million, according to her Washington Post obituary.

Cargill directed that her foundation assist a broad range of causes, including the environment, arts, disaster relief, children, education, tolerance and conflict resolution, animal care, American Indian culture, and the elderly.

The foundation does not accept solicitations. Instead, its trustees identify organizations that work to achieve Cargill’s priorities. The inaugural round of grants going out this year “is an effort by the trustees to identify organizations that clearly fit within the parameters,” Gaines said. Trustees “wanted to make a footprint with the first round.” She had no information on the number or size of future grants. “The foundation is so new, the drywall isn’t even dry yet,” she quipped.

The arts initiative is a pet project for Kerger, who raised funds for the Metropolitan Opera and WNET arts programs earlier in her career. She has often listed arts programs among her priorities since coming to PBS four years ago. The arts showcase would include a weekly primetime arts night, along with online on-demand content. The National Endowment for the Arts has also contributed $100,000 so far. A launch date has not yet been set.

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