Start a Conversation: Invest v. Donate


By: Barry Nelson

This is a blog post about linguistics.  It’s also about strategy and tactics.  Chiefly, it’s about how we execute Pledge, the goals of Pledge, and what we can achieve in the long-term if we move in the direction of changing from a tactical approach to a strategic one.

The history of pledge drives is to some degree an oral history, but there is a brief Wikipedia entry that provides some context:

Pledge drives have been controversial for most of their existence. While pledge drives are an effective method of raising money for stations, they usually annoy viewers and listeners, who find the regular interruption of what is ordinarily commercial-free content to be a nuisance. Audience numbers often decline during pledge drives; to compensate, most television stations air special television shows during these fundraising periods.

This practice [pledge] began in earnest in the mid-1970s due to CPB funding cutbacks that were the result of political pressures and the recessions of the time, as well as increasing inflation. As the proportions of government funding in stations’ budgets continued to decline over time, such programs became more elaborate in order to sway people who would otherwise watch public television only sporadically (or not at all) to tune in, and possibly donate money in response to appeals during program breaks.*

Note the immediate negative reference to the pledge drive as an annoyance.  Radio stations are attempting to mitigate discontent by shortening pledge drives, and many TV stations are increasingly pledging ‘core’ programs to keep regular PBS viewers happy.

Pledge: Tactic v Strategy

Pledge is a tactic that is part of an overall fundraising strategy.  For almost all of its existence, the goal of Pledge has been to raise money and acquire new members/reacquire lapsed donors.  Let’s be honest: it’s mainly about the money.

The fragmentation of media and proliferation of platforms will soon be an impediment to meeting fundraising expectations, which is going to adversely affect our overall strategy—unless we are prepared to change.  Many stations are responding by targeting Sustainers, in some cases to the exclusion of one-time donors who require more effort and expense to renew, but who are nevertheless valuable from a cultivation point of view.

To address that challenge, I suggest we drop the term “pledge” and replace it with “invest.”  The switch is a strategic one: “invest” speaks to the organization’s plans and the donor’s dreams, while “pledge” is a remnant of the ‘tin cup’ fundraising approach, which originated out of necessity in the 1970s.  A “pledge” is a promise, which was relevant when we used to invoice respondents, but given the proliferation of credit card and EFT transactions, the term is an anachronism.  “Invest” is a term successfully used by non-profits to appeal to donors who have personal goals for their discretionary giving, and the time is right to switch to this term as we appeal to Boomers, GenX & Millennials, who seek deeper relationships with the recipients of their largesse.  My hope is that this message will get out to producers of TV and radio pledge drive programs, who still use the term “pledge” and “pledge drive” in their pitches.

Goals As a Strategy

As for the goals of an on-air campaign, we often focus on the short-term, which is why dollars often trump donors.  Strategically, it makes more sense to me to reverse the priorities to donors over dollars, especially given the sophistication of the tools and techniques stations are employing to cultivate newly acquired donors.   Of course, resource-strapped stations that rely on broadcast campaigns to raise cash will find it difficult to make the shift.  CDP has a number of off-air fundraising solutions that can help alleviate risks to cash flow when taking steps toward shifting focus of on-air campaigns.

WRTI (Philadelphia) recently completed a campaign whose goal was to both reduce the number of days by half and reach a participation goal of 3000 donors.  They achieved the first goal and exceeded the second, with 3040 donors providing 3127 donations.  The goal for first-time members was 800.  Ultimately, 580 new members (19% of the total) supported the classical/jazz station.  WRTI Membership Manager Porsche Blakey said that among the sentiments expressed by staff regarding pitching donors instead of dollars was, “It felt more humanistic and personal.”  People invest in people, so that seemed like an appropriate response.

What are your thoughts?  Concerns?  Stories?  Ideas?  


*source: Wikipedia

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