On Air

On Air

On Air iconSustainers in On-Air Drives

The vast majority of sustainers in public television have been, and will continue to be, recruited through on-air drives. That's because on-air drives are one of the most powerful ways in which to influence how donors give. A well-crafted pledge break offers the time to make an emotional and rational appeal in the midst of the very program the viewer is currently enjoying.

That said, success with sustainers on the air can also be a challenge because on-air is also the fundraising venue over which you have the least direct control. For starters, you're speaking to a mass audience that includes non-members, long-time members, and sustainers. Then, at many stations pre-taped PBS Pledge Events dominate the schedule, giving you little opportunity to share your own message. And finally, when you do pitch live, your producers, hosts, and phone answering team in many ways hold the reins to your success.

Sustainers are likely to be some of the station’s best donors so offering them a thank you gift in subsequent years makes good sense. Not only is it a way to reach out to sustainers and say thank you for their financial support, it gives your station the opportunity to continue building a stronger connection. Using emails, postcards or as a part of an annual thank you call are all ways to give your sustaining donors an opportunity to select a thank you gift.

This means that there are three critical elements to successful sustainer acquisition during an on-air drive:

  1. Know and understand how Pledge Events are built and make sure that your online, phone service, and back-end processes match up with what's happening on the air.
  2. Match your own live pitches with the messages your audience receives in the Pledge Events to maintain consistency across your drives.
  3. Make sure everyone on your team — from producers to hosts to volunteers — understands what your strategy is and why that strategy matters.

What to Ask For

Because on-air fundraising is such a public activity, it sets the bar for what it means to be a sustaining member, in particular what donation levels should be. Most stations begin their sustainer programs at either $5 or $10 a month. Offering an option lower than $5 is not recommended — from a net revenue perspective it simply doesn't pay.

Since sustaining programs do not have decades of data available, like other aspects of public television membership programs, there is a continuing debate about whether stations should only speak in monthly amounts on the air, or whether they should also include the annual amount, wrapped in a pitch to one-time donors.

Similar to the gift level discussion, what we do know is that when monthly-only is the strategy, stations do receive a higher percentage of sustainers to one-time donors in their on-air drives. At issue, however, is the fact that there are many prospective donors who will never opt to become sustainers. There is some early evidence, shown by decreased new member participation, that a sustainer-only pitch does potentially discourage one-time givers from participating. Thus, it's important to also have this discussion inside your station to determine what the best option is for your situation.

When considering $5 a month as an entry point, we know that the annual amount ($60) is greater than the typical average gift secured through acquisition mail. And we know that a lower appeal will typically encourage more donors to participate because the barrier to entry is easier to cross. Now that Passport has been launched with a minimum gift of $5 a month there is an even greater opportunity to reach potential new donors with an entry level sustaining gift.

However, we also know that the greatest predictor of future giving and upgrade potential is the level at which a donor first joins as a supporter. It's the difference in behavior between "tippers" and donors. For some donors, a $5 a month gift is considered to be more of a tip to the station, where a $10 a month gift is more of a commitment. With that $10 gift, not only do you start out with twice as much revenue, but it will be easier to upgrade your $10 donor to $15 or $20 a month than it will be to upgrade your $5 donor to $10 for example.

So do you want more donors on your file? Larger donors on your file? Or perhaps a strategic mix of both? Determining what's right for your station — and sometimes that determination can be made on a program-by-program basis when it comes to on-air strategy — will require some strategic thinking and careful application of gift level messaging.

And when it comes to pitching levels, don't automatically shy away from odd levels such as $9, $11, $17, $19 etc. Odd numbers can be effective at grabbing attention and causing action.