Relational Fundraising, It Starts at the Top

At this year’s Annual Meeting, we facilitated a session called “Relational Fundraising, It Starts at the Top” with Tom Karlow/KPBS, Gary Stokes/KSPS, and Kurt Mische/KNPB.  The conversation was lively, and lots of good ideas were shared. To continue this dialogue, we’ve asked Tom, Gary, and Kurt to share their insight.


  1. When you hear the term relational fundraising, what do you think of? What does it mean to you?

Tom:  Successful fundraising today involves more than using over the air and direct mail to inspire donors to contribute.  People give their money to people.  The most successful non-profits have CEO’s that are involved in the community and have direct contact with donors.  Building relationships is the key to successful long-term fundraising.  People want to give to people and they want to know the person running the organization.

Gary:  People are more likely to give to people, and much more likely to give to people they know, like or respect. For those of us at the GM level, that means being active on our air, active in our communities and available for our Development team.

Kurt:  Relational fundraising means it is essential to create and nurture relationships with individuals, companies and groups and develop them for the benefit of the station.  It means being a part of things, being involved in the community, becoming a known quantity and a valued member of the business community.

  1. The session at Annual Meeting was called ‘Relational Fundraising, It Starts at the Top!” How have you, as a GM, created a fundraising culture at your station?

Tom:  The money doesn’t come in just because we produce and broadcast excellent content.  It is not like “Field of Dreams” (If you build it they will come”!).  The most successful organizations have to have the CEO go out and meet with people and become high profile.  At KPBS we have in our strategic plan a section on the image of the CEO.  Being out in the community is my top priority.  I serve on local boards, attend local nonprofit galas and my wife also serves on boards.  This gives me a chance to always be front and center with the mover and shakers of our community.   I also have set up a structure internally where I rely on my top executives to run the day to day operations allowing me more time to be involve with the community.

Gary:  I started in Development – and have done Corporate Support, Major Gifts, and managing Development departments. I’ve been fortunate to work with great teams, who have been open to ideas and suggestions. But the real advantage is being open to their ideas and suggestions as well. When you’re not afraid to try a new campaign or take a bold chance…everybody wins – either profiting from the success or learning from the near miss.

Kurt:  By doing the items mentioned in #1.  Our station has joined several key community organizations, so people see us as contributing to solutions, growth and development.  Those relationships help us to put people together who may not know one another but who have similar interests and needs.  At the station, we repeat the mantra that “everyone is in development” and that all we do need to generate revenue through serving our community.  Leading by example is key, so is encouraging other staffers to get involved in things outside of the office.

  1. Not everyone is comfortable with the ‘ask.’ How can GMs play a role in fundraising if they don’t like asking for money?

Tom:  In today’s world you have to be comfortable making the ask.  There is too much competition for the philanthropic dollar.  Every nonprofit is fundraising.  If you are not comfortable with the ask, then you have one strike against reaching your potential regarding fundraising.

Gary:  See answer 1. If you’re not comfortable making a direct ask, you can do an on-air spot that shows why those dollars are important to the mission of the station. Keep your Development Team in the loop on people you meet at events, Board meetings, Rotary, Kiwanis…even dinner parties. If those names are in your database, you’ve given your team a valuable contact, if not a valuable potential prospect.

Kurt:  They need to get comfortable with it to the extent possible.  While the GM may not do an “ask,” can he/she come along on a call?  Have coffee with someone?  Visit about an important program or initiative?  If fundraising is not the GM’s long suit, then they need to be certain that they surround themselves with people who are strong fundraisers and accompany them.  GM’s also needed to be current on good social skills and some degree of public speaking, even if it means a Dale Carnegie class or two.  Attending CSPI is especially useful for GM’s who may not have a fundraising background.

  1. What role does your development staff play in keeping you active in your relationship building and cultivation?

Tom:  I meet daily with the development team.  They create a plan for me weekly that involves the following:  Donor thank you calls and letters, donor tours of our stations, lunch and dinner meetings, local events and galas to attend and refreshing on-air image spots with me airing on an on-going basis.

Gary:  Fundraising is a team sport. At KSPS we’ve got a great Development team that has been together long enough to take advantage of any situation. It’s not uncommon for any of them to drop by my office to run an idea or check on a prospect. I also try to attend Development team meetings when I can, so I know what’s in the pipeline to see if I can help. And I have a standing weekly meeting the Development Director, as I do with other department heads, just to stay in the loop.

Kurt:  They know I will clear my calendar to go on calls with them…they come first.  What could be more important?  I come along on regular visits, lunches and meetings even when an ask is not being made.  Being able to have me talk about station programs/initiatives is useful and important to the donor.  Like it or not, in public TV the GM is the fundraiser in chief and must embrace that role.

  1. What role does your board or advisory council play in your relational fundraising?

Tom:  As a university licensee we have an advisory council that is very involved with donor engagement.  The advisory council is to never make an ask, however their role is to connect me in the community.  They invite me to events and galas and try to set up meetings with new prospects.

Gary:  Our Board contributes in many ways. Some serve on the Development Committee bringing contacts and expertise, others help set up meetings with prospective donors, and all either attend and work events or serve as pledge phone volunteers.  Our Board Chair sets the example, by doing all of the above. In addition, they, and our Major Giving Officer, maintain strong relationships with past Board members, who remain a vital resource.

Kurt:  We use our board to open doors, make introductions, and help us connect the dots.  Not all board members are comfortable with fundraising, so having them help with some connections can be very useful.

  1. If you could give only 1 piece of advice to GMs looking to change the culture at their station, what would it be?

Tom:  The GM of today is very different than the GM of yesterday.  Be out in the community.  If you are staying inside the building and micromanaging your team you will lose opportunities to raise funds to grow your organization.

Gary:  If you’re not already involved in Development, let it be known you’re ready and willing to take an active role- and work with your Development team help find one that best works for you, for them and for the station.

Kurt:  You are the fundraiser in chief.  Everyone is in development.  Money will not fall out of the sky.  Get out of the office.  Meet, greet, get active and let your team see and learn from your example.

Toanya Kesse | Director, Corporate Support, Station Relations | PBS

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