Viewers find their roots in Atlanta, forging a new connection to ATL PBA and with each other.
For decades, PBS viewers have always been willing to donate to member stations in exchange for thank-you gifts like DVD sets. But as the culture has begun to shift from transactional giving to more experience-oriented support, could a different kind of premium be more effective during pledge drives?
That’s the question Public Broadcasting Atlanta has been asking. “The idea was to find new ways to incentivize giving during our pledge drives, and even outside of pledge, using what we call ‘experiential premiums,’” says Aishah Rashied Hyman, director of individual giving at ATL PBA. “We’ve been testing out different things. One of the things we wanted to try was a DNA reveal similar to what Dr. Henry Louis Gates does in Finding Your Roots.”
At the end of episodes of that popular documentary series, celebrities are presented with information about their ancestral lineage. Given the large African American audience in Atlanta, Hyman wanted to create a similar experience among viewers based upon DNA kits and a partnership with AfricanAncestry.com. “We wanted to create something different than simply saying ‘Donate and we’ll show you more episodes of this program,’” she says. “We are asking viewers to invest in the station, so we wanted to find a deeper way to invest in them.”
ATL PBA offered an exclusive opportunity for viewers to discover their family’s roots. The station planned African Ancestry Experience, an event with Dr. Gina Paige, the co-founder of AfricanAncestry.com. For non-sustaining gifts of $350, viewers received two tickets and a DNA test kit, with the promise of a public reveal of their country of origin at the July 19 event. (Tickets to the event without the test kit were available for $100, also at a non-sustaining level.)
The July event was promoted in TV spots airing March through June around programs like Finding Your Roots, Africa’s Great Civilizations, African American Museum, and Black America Since MLK.
While more than 100 people attended the event itself, 33 people donated for the kits. The station’s African Ancestry Experience raised $12,150—“Not bad for a test!” Hyman says—and proved to be incredibly meaningful for those who attended. These individuals represented a group of donors who might not otherwise have given through traditional pledge activities. “We got a great response,” says Hyman. “I think all the folks who experienced the reveal [of their ancestry] at the event were moved.”
That includes Hyman, who actually performed her cheek swab on-air during a pledge break. “If that was going to be a barrier to making a donation, I wanted to remove that barrier,” she says. Rashied Hyman also put off looking at her own results until the event. “I wanted the same experience of surprise as everyone else. For me and everybody else who found out their ancestry, I think there’s a sense of connection with each other and a profound shift that happens with your sense of identity. I’m still processing the experience myself.”
The kits trace a person’s maternal heritage. “I found out that my family, on my mother’s mother’s mother’s side, are from the Fulani people who live in Mali. Wow! Now I have a specific place I can point to as the birthplace of my family. That’s information I can now share with my entire family on my mother’s side,” she says.
The event included a pre-event reception for participants, a meet-and-greet with Dr. Paige, and VIP seating for those experiencing the reveal. Afterward, these donors shared testimonials that the station is now editing and will use as spots to promote the next event.
In the wake of the event, participants have begun connecting to the station at a deeper level. “I think we added a transformative layer to supporting the station that I think is really cool,” Hyman says. Some participants have asked the station to consider facilitating meet-ups between African Americans descended from similar people groups. Others are interested in group travel to tour African nations in their family trees. “It’s opened up this whole new sense of themselves and who they are and who they’re connected to, and they want us to help them find that.”
Planning for the Future
After the success of the African Ancestry Experience, Hyman says the station is planning another event in the future—with a few changes. The next one will take place earlier in the year. “A lot of people will want to share this information at family reunions, which most of the time happen in the summer,” she says. “Going forward, we’re definitely thinking about the fall and no later than springtime.”
She also plans to communicate more specifically that purchasing the tickets and DNA kit entails a commitment to a public reveal. This time, it was only after the pledge itself that the station asked for permission to reveal the results in public. “We had people who were hesitant and didn’t want to do that,” she says, speculating that some worried their maternal heritage wouldn’t be African—a potential concern for those with brown skin who already identified as African American. “Next time we will be more explicit at the outset.” She also plans to better communicate a deadline, as a few donors didn’t return their cheek swabs in time for the event.
ATL PBA also intends to schedule future events apart from specific programming or fundraising seasons. “People are so familiar with Finding Your Roots and they associate that with our branding and our station,” Hyman says. “We don’t feel like we have to wait for a pledge drive to do this again.”