Syda Productions/shutterstock

Syda Productions/shutterstock

In July, NPR’s David Folkenflik reported that the public radio network’s shows lost approximately 25% of their audience between the second quarter of 2019 and the same months in 2020, as the pandemic kept listeners from commuting to work and school. While more than 57 million people consume NPR’s offerings each week, the station is still projecting a $23 million drop in total sponsorship this year.  

NPR isn’t alone. Public radio stations, like their peers in print and online outlets, saw a huge portion of their revenues vanish after the pandemic forced local businesses to pull advertising. Organizations in both sectors turned to philanthropy to fill the gaps.

Public radio stations had an ally in the Contributor Development Partnership (CDP). Founded in 2011 as an initiative within Boston’s WGBH, the self-described “fundraising alliance” provides tech and marketing support, data analytics and best practices to help public radio and television stations raise money and better serve their local communities.

The CDP recognized early on that “donors, as people, craved connection and a sense of control at a time when so much in their lives was out of their control,” CDP president and co-founder Michal Heiplik told me. Rather than pull the plug on partners’ existing fundraising operations, CDP went back to the drawing board, analyzed the data, and crafted what Heiplik called a targeted “omni-channel COVID strategy” for more than 30 client partners representing 800,000-plus donors. 

It worked. By reminding listeners of their “critical role in public media’s public service mission,” stations successfully engaged first-time and recurring donors, and even outperformed 2019’s revenues. Looking back on the initiative, Heiplik’s takeaway was a simple one: “In times of crisis, people want to help. Determine why your organization matters during these times and work to draw your donors and prospects closer to you.”

“Literally Stopping the Presses”

The Boston-based CDP grew out of an initiative by the Major Market Group of Public Television (MMGPT), which, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) and WGBH, built a tool to help stations identify fundraising areas of opportunity. The CDP’s partners include Salesforce, PBS and NPR.

Some stations have outsourced their entire fundraising operations to the CDP’s Member Service Bureau, which conducts direct mail outreach, pledge processing and, in pre-pandemic days, door-to-door canvassing using neighborhood and real estate data to target potential donors.

Prior to joining CDP, Heiplik was executive director for local development at WGBH, where he oversaw all levels of membership at the station, and Houston Public Media, where he built the station’s donor database and managed its fundraising platform.

When the pandemic hit, Heiplik and his team conducted an “economic environmental scan” to determine the potential impact on its client partners. Heiplik understood that some donors would cancel monthly contributions or planned gifts. He advised local stations to prepare to re-forecast existing fundraising budgets, and seeing the possibility for long-lasting impact from the pandemic, recommended they take a conservative approach to FY21 planning, going so far as to suggest provisional budgets that could be revised regularly.

In fact, Heiplik said CDP’s client partners were “literally stopping the presses on an in-progress direct mail campaign that was deemed inappropriate for the moment.” Clients shelved the campaign for a later time and replaced it with a fast-tracked, COVID-specific campaign that included updated messaging and one-off direct marketing pieces.

Revenues Eclipse 2019 Figures

Listeners appreciated that public radio built community cohesion, provided critical information, and made them feel less alone during those early and unsettled weeks of the pandemic. As research firm Nielsen said back in March, radio is “comfort food.”

But two factors seemed to be working against CDP and its plan. First, if NPR’s findings are emblematic of the sector as a whole, public radio’s archetypal donors–professionals who commute every day—were listening less while working from home. And second, listeners in general would be less inclined to donate given ongoing economic uncertainty, especially as the market tanked in late March.

CDP tested some of these assumptions, collecting data from 112 stations representing 2.5 million donors and nearly $100 million in donations from January to March 2020. In mid-May, it produced its first analysis of the effects of the early stages of the pandemic on stations’ individual giving programs. In a piece in Current magazine, Heiplik listed the following findings:

  • Membership revenue was holding its own. 

  • Stations that continued with their March on-air drives were doing better with fundraising than those that delayed or canceled their drives outright. 

  • Stations with strong “sustainer” membership programs were also showing resilience. 

CDP partner clients rolled out their targeted COVID campaign against this backdrop. CDP tracked the campaign’s results and found that despite an initial four-week dip in year-over-year performance from mid-March through mid-April, participating stations’ cumulative year-over-year revenue (for gifts <$1000) rebounded in mid-April and began outperforming 2019 by double digits, and continues to do so.

Heiplik attributes this success to a host of reasons. First, its use of Redpoint’s gOne data analysis and marketing platform enabled CDP and its partners to “react quickly to a changing market and customize our messages.” Partners also saw a spike in new one-time and recurring donors due to interest in PBS Passport, public television’s online streaming benefit for donors.

Leveraging a “Window of Increased Philanthropy”

Of course, customer engagement tools and donor perks can only go so far. Donors don’t reach for their checkbooks if they don’t believe in the organization asking for money. But public radio stations across the U.S. “sprang into action” in the early days of the pandemic, Heiplik told me, “providing educational resources to teachers for them to leverage in a remote learning environment and utilizing their own free, over-the-air broadcast signals to reach deep into underserved communities.”

Donors came to appreciate “moments just like this, where local stations were poised to serve as a vital community resource that could bridge the digital divide with critically important information and educational resources,” Heiplik said.

This combination of granular donor segmentation, surging interest in Passport, and a messaging strategy that tapped into a desire to help out allowed CDP’s partners to leverage what Heiplik called a “window of increased philanthropy.” People “wanted to feel that they could do something, anything, to make a difference.”

Here again, we see strong similarities to the nonprofit journalism field, where citizens gravitated to trusted local outlets in March and April for news around shelter-in-place updates, testing sites and school closures. Steve Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, told me that “donors write in saying how critical their local newsroom is to their understanding of COVID-19 and its impact on the community.”

Heiplik said one area that saw a decrease was in gifts of $1,000 or more, compared to the same period in 2019. These donations represent “major gifts” for many public media stations. He attributed this decline to the fact that stations had to suspend in-person events, visits and solicitation.

Heiplik provided the following advice for fundraisers navigating a world transformed by COVID-19: “Don’t let personal circumstances and upheaval cloud your professional judgment. Relentlessly track the events impacting your donors, as well as your fundraising performance, and adjust as needed, letting data drive your decision-making.”

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