Listeners Like You – What We Can Learn From Pledge Drives

What We Can Learn From Pledge Drives

If you’re like me and like to listen to NPR while driving, you probably noticed in the last month that your regularly scheduled programming was frequently interrupted by appeals for donations. That’s because it was NPR’s Spring Pledge Drive, the semi-annual period of extended fundraising activities designed to increase contributions.

What happened when you heard those station employees begging for money? Did you call and make a pledge, continue listening and consider pledging later, or did you change the station and listen to music. There’s no judgement; I, myself, chose option three. Pledge drives have been controversial for most of their existence. While pledge drives are an effective method of raising money for stations, they often annoy listeners, who find the regular interruption of what is ordinarily commercial-free content to be a nuisance.

However, I can’t dismiss my tuning out as the result of simple annoyance. In truth, I felt guilt. Public radio is a service that I’ve benefitted from directly but have not taken the time to pay for. I was being reminded of this, and I didn’t like it. In her March 2, 2009 Slate Article Let’s Get Those Phones Ringing, June Thomas humorously compares NPR to a “mythical schoolyard drug slinger…giv[ing] away its product and then ask[ing] listeners to pay once they’re hooked.” Scathing as this comparison is, there’s certainly some truth in it and also, as I’ve come to realize, a lot of brilliance.

Public radio and public television are nonprofits with a unique fundraising model. Their donors are, in large part, the beneficiaries of their services. That isn’t to say there isn’t an element of altruism. In their appeals, stations frequently talk about members and listeners who may have lost their jobs or businesses. They urge donors to make additional pledges to cover those people “who right now are listening, relying on public radio, but they can’t—they’re not in a situation where they can make that pledge just now, and they’ll get there next time.” [Slate]

Now, I’m not advocating for nonprofits to be schoolyard drug slingers when it comes to fundraising, but it’s interesting to think about the effectiveness of this model where it’s possible. Although I didn’t become a member during the pledge drive, NPR has stayed in my consciousness, and I just made a one-time donation online. As someone who often has more time than money I also looked up volunteer opportunities at my local station. What opportunities were there, I wondered, to contribute to this worthy cause? I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw what they were most interested in–people to answer phones for their membership drives.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one with mixed emotions on pledge drives. So, what can we learn from them?

  • Consider your constituent’s environment: Whether you choose radio ads, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign on social media, a text-centric mobile campaign, or a gala event, think hard about the environment they’re in when they hear your plea. Why should they drop what they’re doing to listen to you?
  • Give people options: All nonprofits need cash to keep their programs running, but they also need volunteers. Suggest ways all of your constituents can contribute, regardless of income level.
  • Pledges aren’t for everyone: In today’s subscription-driven world, many people prefer recurring donations over pledges. Know your audience and consider what they are likely to respond best to.
  • Know your administrative capabilities: Pledge drives and recurring donation campaigns have very different backend considerations, and you should think about how your strategy fits in with your existing CRM, including mass emails, tax receipts, and bookkeeping. Again, check out Jenny Council’s post on Pledges vs. Recurring Donations for more on this topic.

Interested in learning more about the power of text messages and mobile giving? Idealist Consulting and mGive are hosting a webinar “One Small Step for Fundraising: Mobile Giving with mGive” on June 4 at 10am PST. Register here.

Erica Korer

About Erica Korer

Erica Korer joined Idealist Consulting after working as a Business Systems Analyst for an energy conservation nonprofit. At Idealist Consulting, she strives to recommend the most thoughtful technology solutions for each client's business needs. Erica has a passion for promoting literacy and has been a regular volunteer at an organization that facilitates writing workshops for disadvantaged populations.

One comment

  1. I donate to my local PBS and NPR stations, and while I hate the pledge drives, my recurring donations to both orgs have definitely helped assuage the associated guilt!

    One interesting thing that my local NPR station has instituted is a pledge-drive free internet stream for donors with log in details. This is an interesting incentive, and one that may drive up new donors sick of the interruptions.

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