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Public TV's pledge audiences pay as little attention to the routine pitch as airline passengers give to admonitions about "low and tight" seatbelts, according to the LeRoys. (Illustration: Current.)

Human nature: viewers ignore tired, old pledge

Fund drives should initiate a social relationship

Originally published in Current, March 26, 2001
Commentary by David and Judith LeRoy

At a meeting not long ago, we were planning studies to examine pledge trends when someone said, "You know what? Pledge is just plain . . . tired." The group responded with a silent, "So what’s new?"

A few days after the meeting, one of the participants, Mark Laskowski from PBS, raised the topic again. He told us about his flight home from the meeting. As he settled into his seat, the flight attendant began the usual safety announcements about buckling seatbelts, locating the nearest exit and so on.

"And then," Mark said, "I understood why pledge is tired!" Mark’s point was that, just as we find it very hard to pay close attention to the flight attendant’s safety announcements, we also find it hard to pay attention to pledge breaks—especially the pitches we have all heard, like the safety announcements, many, many times.

Why things wear out

Turns out this inability to pay close attention to repetitive actions and stimuli is just a part of human nature. You can blame it on your hippocampus and related limbic brain functions that process short-term memory stimuli. The human nervous system is built to detect novelty or what is new in a scene or situation—not what remains the same. That is why you can drive home each day without paying much attention to things and still not get lost, not have an accident and not even remember much about the trip after you get home. Whenever something becomes routine (the same), it slips out of consciousness; your nervous system goes on automatic and generally perceives only what is different in the situation or scene. Psychologists suggest that as much as 98 percent of our decisions are a function of automaticity. It’s only human nature!

To get people to pay attention to pledge, stations have resorted to all kinds of tactics, but eventually any pitch or strategy is going to become routine and, like the flight attendant’s safety announcements, slip away from our conscious attention. In pledge drives, we change the programs, but we rarely change the pitches, our strategies or the talent.

Organizations, like public TV stations, evolve standard operating procedures that sociologists dub "cultures." The pledge culture at most stations evolved over time, mostly by accident and through decisions based on anecdotal information. But at many stations, it is getting harder and harder to raise money, and even harder to attract and retain new members. Pledge drives have become rote or "tired" because human nature has tuned out the pitches and pledge activity for most regular viewers. In their quest to get the viewer’s attention and still meet the goal (which seems to get higher and higher each year), stations have come to depend on certain kinds of pledge programs that attract donations (personal finance and new-age gurus) instead of long-term members. And the norm, now, is to demand primetime blockbusters, like Riverdance, which will drive people to the phone—since pledge strategies, talent and pitches have "worn out," slipped out of consciousness and no longer connect with viewers enough to get them out of their chairs.

It’s time to reexamine and restate the core assumptions about pledge drives. We have come to this current state of affairs because we and our viewers are human beings, and our stations’ pledge "cultures" follow old, unquestioned habits that don’t take that into account.

Technology and social capital

The usual routine when we have a problem—perhaps especially for men—is to wheel in some kind of technology fix for the problem. The fix de jour lately has been the Internet. We’ll fix our membership problem by getting and renewing members via e-mail and websites.

The Internet may be touted as a "transforming technology," but we suspect it will evolve into a less-than-perfect tool, like so many other technologies that promised utopian fixes in the past—soon drifting into the background like the telephone, television, VCR and, no doubt, Tivos. The reason is, machines cannot replace the need for human contact and interaction. Humans are still hunter-gatherers at their core. Labor-saving, technology-fix devices are, at best only 100 years old—and every one of them changed and evolved from its original purpose and design, remodeling itself as it met the human animal. One of humanity’s primary needs is a demand for face-to-face contact "to take another person’s measure." (Do you trust him or her? Do you like them?)

Consider that, if we have a choice, for most purposes we will prefer to talk to a person on the phone rather than send an e-mail, and it is even better to meet them in-person. Why? Our neocortex is the best "person reader" there is, and it needs an almost tactile contact to work its best. Gossip, stories and other forms of social networks serve many different functions for humans. That is why we still have meetings and go to conventions: so participants can see each other, press the flesh, and gossip. The residue of these human interactions has a term. That term is social capital.

What is social capital? It is the trust, good will and affection that develops over time when people interact and develop relationships with each other in their community or workplace. Some people have enormous reservoirs of social capital (we trust and like them instantly), while other people do not. It’s human nature. Any community (or TV station) is, at its simplest level, nothing but networks of social interactions associated around procedures or tasks.

Human connections with institutions

Public television and radio have evolved in a unique way in America. We know that public broadcasting performs important social functions through its programming in a society rich in all forms of capital (fiscal, intellectual, human and social). Some people love public broadcasting programming, and this, in turn, generates social capital between the institution and the viewer that, we hope, results in fiscal capital—memberships. (It certainly results in political capital, as the firestorm over cutting federal funding demonstrated some five years ago.)

Public television membership is a human activity moderated with the help of technology. Here technology is a means, not an end in itself. Prospective members must learn how to regard pledge and other membership activities. Those viewers are expected to absorb the rules and expectations of pledge and membership from a haphazard set of encounters with the station in its fundraising activities. The key question is simple: how does one learn to become a member? And also, how do we persuade them to stay? If one part of the membership program—say, pledge or direct mail—becomes simply a marketing device to capture dollars and does not foster "memberness" through its messages and images to inform and teach the viewer, then membership files will shrink because people are not "getting the message."

Many other organizations are having the same problem with declining memberships and charitable contributions, so our problems are not unique. At first, we at TRAC thought we could learn from other philanthropies’ research on their members. However, there is very little rigorous and theoretically grounded research about why some people are altruistic and others are not. Many charities and philanthropies know less about their members and supporters than we do.

For years, we at TRAC have been studying people and how they view, support and interact with public television. These studies often are funded to answer specific, limited or narrow questions. Naturally, we know very little about many things (for example, are there different types of members?), and we know just enough about other things to be puzzled (is buying an overpriced premium really an irrational act?).

Social networks and civil society

What is clear is that the more we learn about how viewers become members and interact with the station’s programming and its fundraising activities, the more a person’s web of social networks emerges as a key predictor of altruism.

From ongoing sociological studies we know that income is a poor predictor of donative behavior, as are age and even education. The key predictor of membership is the density of a people's social networks, their membership in other associations and the amount of volunteering they do. One of the best predictors of public broadcasting membership is the number of other charitable gifts a person donates to other community organizations in a given year.

Pledging and being a member of a public TV station do not occur in a social vacuum. It is laced firmly into the viewer’s family and community life. Charity, as the truism states, begins at home. If your parents were generous and altruistic, there is a good chance you will be. If you are generous and altruistic, there is a very good chance that your friends are generous, volunteer for community services, belong to the zoo and the art museum, and go to church. Birds of a feather, as the old saying goes, flock together. How one learns to be altruistic and generous follows, first and last, from an emotional connection being forged between the person and the charity. In the case of public television, the premium functions more as a talisman of the emotional connection than an object of any particular value.

So is pledge tired? Has it worn out its messages? Like the flight attendant’s safety lecture, are we no longer communicating? Or are we simply preaching to the converted? The answer to all these questions appears to be "yes." Between 60 to 70 percent of the people pledging and taking a premium already are members, or have been members, at some time in the past! It’s easier to recycle than convert, it appears.

While there is much justifiable lamenting about the Baby Boomers’ lack of philanthropic behavior, pledge is attracting them. In our study of the demographics of more that 180,000 pledgers in 10 different markets, we found that Boomers and the slightly older Silent Generation folks are, overall, the biggest groups of pledgers in most pledge drives.

But there is also evidence that some pledgers, especially the younger ones, have no idea about what it is to be a member. And the stations, it seems, make few efforts to cultivate and teach them.

In the final analysis, pledge is not passe, but it needs to be refreshed and focused on its real purpose—membership building. Senior station managers have to exercise greater discipline in setting realistic fiscal goals. If the only purpose of pledge drives is to generate cash, then the drives become nothing more than a blunt instrument to maintain immediate cash flow, and the membership files will continue to shrink. There is much that we do not know about pledge drives and membership in general, but we do know that the relationship between the station and its viewer members is the key to our future success. And we will suffer greatly if we forget that pledge, at its core, is a social relationship.

David and Judith LeRoy are co-directors of TRAC Media Services, Tucson, Ariz., a major supplier of audience and fundraising data and analysis for public TV stations and producers.

Web page posted April 12, 2001
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Though public TV continues to receive more money from viewer/members, the number donating has fallen.

Public TV passes the torch to a new generation of pledgers — the Boomers.

Some stations earn more at pledge time by having shorter or sweeter on-air drives — or none at all.


Slipping memberships and discontent with pledge drives prompt a "summit" meeting in public TV, April 2001.


This is the brain on pledge drives. It's not a pretty picture, the LeRoys write in 2005.


The authors' media research company, TRAC Media Services.