Guest of honor Martin Goldsmith, of NPR's Performance Today (second from left), takes refreshment with major donors of KRCU-FM in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Photo: Michael Grace, Southeast Missouri State University.)
Growing your major gifts in 10 steps
The No. 1 reason most people don't give to an institution is that they aren't asked, fundraising experts like to say. Those who specialize in major-gift and planned-gift solicitation say that's as true for the $5,000 contributor as for the $50 member.
There are countless ways to ask, but a number of common strategies emerge in interviews with more than a dozen major-gift/planned-gift specialists at public radio and TV stations. Here are 10 of their suggestions for starting or beefing up a major-giving/planned-giving effort:
1 Start a major-giving club, if you don't already have one. The first tenet for fundraisers seeking large checks is to have a personal relationship with the prospective donors. "People don't give to institutions, they give to people," said Robert Stein, director of the Center for Major Giving of public radio's Development Exchange Inc.
"It's difficult to go from no relationship to a high relationship; an annual giving club helps bridge that gap," said Pat Rudebusch, formerly head of PBS' major-gifts program, who now gives seminars on the subject with Stein.
Although station execs can hire consultants to target prospects for a major-giving club, many successful smaller stations have gone the route of Greg Petrowich, g.m. of KRCU-FM in Cape Giradeau, Mo., who launched his Southeast Public Radio Circle last year by having five board members who were already significant givers work their Rolodexes to develop a prospect list. Club candidates received carefully crafted pitch letters signed by the board member who knew them, asking that they contribute $84 a month. Each also received a spiral-bound book that described the history and mission of the station and its goals.
The result was 17 contributions of $1,000 or more, out of 75 letters.
Before starting the giving club at WDAV in Davidson, N.C., Development Director Jill McGuire looked at the philanthropic rolls of arts institutions within a 50-mile radius. "We'd see somebody who had given $5,000 to the symphony and only $50 to us and ask, 'why is that?'"
Many stations have been successful without a formal givers' circle, however. Nashville Public Radio doesn't have one, instead using an annual black tie dinner as a focus for those who give at least $1,000, said General Manager Rob Gordon. "About 140 people attend; we know them all by name," he said.
2 Help the non-development staff get comfortable with major-giving. Public radio's Station Resource Group, for example, suggests certain commitments of time from stations participating in its Major Gifts Initiative, asking that a development staffer devote 50 percent of his or her time to major gifts, with a 10 percent effort from the general manager and the active involvement of at least one board member.
"Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the Leaders Partnership [the Major Gifts Initiative's predecessor] is that the time commitment of general managers and development professionals appears to be the single most important element of success," said the SRG's Susan Harmon.
Announcers should be able to ask for $1,000 contributions on the air without choking, said Patricia Prevost, v.p. of development for Colorado Public Radio. The sum should be in printed solicitations as well; many stations haven't even done that, she said.
3 Know the interests of your major givers. Finding and retaining those generous givers is all about maintaining relationships, by phone or personal meetings. "If they love ballet, invite them to your taping of a ballet performance," said Allison Baird, director of major gifts for WNET, New York.
At KUED in Salt Lake City, which has seen its major-gift contributions increase 10-fold in five years (to $350,000 in fiscal '98), they don't have an annual gala as many stations do, because members are too far-flung for such gatherings, said Gay Redick, KUED manager of major giving. "We have a lot of small focused events and spend a lot of time on the road," she said.
4 Upgrade current members. Most major givers started out at the basic membership level. Jim Lewis of the Lewis-Kennedy Associates consulting firm observes: "A station can tell who has philanthropic intent. People who renew early, do so consistently. People who made additional gifts, people who give more than last year--it's easy to figure out who the suspects are. The best fundraising research is fundraising."
Although launching a major givers' club usually will get you a new crop of folks right off the bat, those are just the ones who were ripe for the picking, said KUED's Redick. To keep major — gift revenues growing, you have to boost the four-digit givers up to five digits, by preaching the mantra of public broadcasting as an endowable institution, as important to the community — if not more so — as a university or museum.
"People aren't going to give you $10,000 just to go to a dance. You've got to talk mission," said Redick.
WNET, which has one of the most successful and oldest major-giving programs in the system, upgraded hundreds of members by simply raising the bar. Last year it upped the lowest level of its Patron WNETwork circle from $1,000 to $1,300 [its channel number is 13]. Although it lost some members who found the contribution too steep, others preferred rounding off the check to $1,500, said Baird.
5 Offer multiple giving options. Not everyone can go from $40 to $1,000, and one-time big givers who are now on a fixed income might give some kind of deferred donation — if they know it's available.
KLRU in Austin added an Associate Producers Circle two years ago, which costs only $140 to join. It's targeted at what Sandy Youman, director of major gifts, calls the Sesame Street alums. "We want them to make public television their first philanthropic effort," she said.
On the other end of the scale, Oregon Public Broadcasting added another level to its giving options by creating the Nova Society, for gifts of $100,000 and above.
AT WNET, Davida Isaacson, director of endowment and planned gifts, makes sure viewers are aware that the station accepts gifts of stock, real estate, bequests and annuities by talking about them on the air and in program guides. Many people make larger contributions when they give these types of gifts; "the upgrade is painless because there's no writing a check," she said.
6 Don't assume that major-giving clubs and capital campaigns are mutually exclusive. As many stations prepare to embark on capital campaigns to pay for federally mandated digital conversion, executives may fear they'll test donors' patience. Although it's not a good idea to launch both a major-giving club and capital campaign at once, one naturally fuels the other.
The capital campaign your station ran a few years back yields prospects for a new major-givers circle, said Lewis. "If somebody gives a gift of $25,000 to the station, the odds are not less, but more, that they'll give again. ... They'll want to protect their investment."
An established major-givers' club, by the same token, can point you to people who already believe in you who may be ready to make a substantial one-time donation.
7 Avoid donor fatigue. Once you get these carefully cultivated major givers on board, don't alienate them by nickel-and-diming them to death, experts say.
Code your database so that people who left your station a $25,000 bequest aren't getting $40 membership requests, said WNET's Isaacson. Major donors get only one renewal letter a year, plus one gift add-on that's a "very soft ask," said Baird.
"Although we ask for $100 increases from the year before, there's a certain genteel atmosphere here," said McGuire in North Carolina. "We would never send someone a thank-you and in that letter ask for an additional gift."
A corollary of this is knowing how much to ask for in the first place, by doing your homework. "When somebody's quick to write a check, I know we didn't ask for enough," said Maynard Orme, g.m. of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
8 Pair up with other cultural institutions. KLRU in Austin has had success teaming up to hold events with such groups as museums, a spiritual center and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, said Youman. At the events, members of the station and the other institution comingle — and co-join, the organizers hope.
WDAV has a good relationship with its licensee, Davidson College, said McGuire, and the two development offices share names and resources. "Although sometimes we've been told we can't approach somebody because they're preparing to ask for a much larger gift," she said.
9 Don't expect immediate results. "You have a culture in public broadcasting that is used to immediate gratification. You ask for money on-air, and checks come in the mail. Major-gift fundraising requires a lot more time ... time to build a relationship with donors, educate the internal constituency, the management, the board," said Rudebusch. Expect to invest in staff for at least a year without seeing a penny, she advised.
For planned giving, the payoff is a lot slower, but the numbers on the checks often end with a lot more zeroes.
"Planned giving development is like moving the Queen Mary," said Orme, noting that it took seven years for OPB to raise its first $1 million. Then it raised $1 million in its eighth year alone. He expects $2 million from planned giving contributions this year.
10 Never, ever sacrifice membership support to go after major donors. "Major giving is just one part of a well-rounded portfolio of asking. ... You have to walk before you can run. A station that is not doing a good job with its membership needs to get that in place before launching a major-giving effort," said Lewis.
Orme offers this reminder that there are, and always will be, many more members than there are major donors.
"First you have to establish your root system, which is your membership. Then start growing your trunk. You really have to grow these folks from membership to mid-level giving. They [all levels of giving] are all integrated. You've got to get going on all of them."
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Copyright 1999 Current