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Set Your Protocols Early

To avoid valuable donors dropping off of your file, it’s important to make key decisions up front about what steps the station wishes to take regarding the ongoing management of sustainers, particularly when it comes to bad and declined payments and cancellations.

Some stations that offer tickets as premiums do not allow them to be secured on a monthly sustainer plan, but rather require an up-front one-time payment on credit card.

When a sustainer wishes to cancel their ongoing support, the station must honor this request in the most timely and efficient manner possible, ensuring that their next scheduled payment does not come out of their credit card or bank account.

Premiums for Sustainers

Sustainers can be some of your station’s most important and loyal donors so it is important to offer them a thank you gift if they would like one.

There will be some instances when a premium already delivered is attached to a donation that has not yet reached its annual gift amount.  Understand that these instances are going to be the exception and hopefully the number of them will be few. Have a plan in place to handle these exceptions as they arise.

There are two ways to approach this situation:

  1. Decide that this is a cost of doing business and let it go, realizing that few donors will take such a step before covering the cash value of the premium, or
  2.  Politely request the donor to fulfill the annual amount of their pledge at the time that they cancel their sustaining membership.

Because many fundraising programs are heavy on premiums, more stations are moving towards the second option, and providing their customer service team with polite, yet firm scripts to manage these sensitive donor communications.

Because we live in a quick-ship world, and because we know that impeccable donor service boosts retention and overall long-term revenue, the strong recommendation is to ship all premiums, except tickets, as soon as possible. There will likely be a few non-fulfilling people in the batch, but don’t punish your loyal, responsible donors because of it.

When your customer service team is spending their time connecting positively with your donors as opposed to answering calls about when donor premiums will arrive – (which will inevitably happen if they are not shipped promptly) you are building a stronger relationship with your donors. Over time, your strong fulfillment and cultivation practices will pay off.

Create a Simple Opt-Out System

An essential part of your communications process is making sure that sustainers can easily find out how to change or opt-out of their monthly giving. A simple, clear and consistent message should be included in an easy-to-locate space on your website and in all acknowledgement and cultivation communications, such as:

"Should you elect to discontinue your sustaining membership, it's simple to accomplish online at, email us at, or call the member services team at ###-#### between 9 and 5 weekdays."

Decide How Much to Ask For

You've probably heard the point made — a $5 monthly gift is just a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Meanwhile, these smaller monthly gifts add up to a reliable source of income. But then, there's the flip side, which is that some donors may be unprepared to commit to long-term giving.

For these reasons, it's important to make two key decisions.

  1. The minimum required amount to become a sustainer and
  2. The amount(s) that will be shared publicly in fundraising appeals.

To begin, no station should offer sustaining memberships at amounts lower than $5 a month. It simply doesn't pay off when accounting for fees and resources needed to manage the donation over time.

Depending on how your basic membership levels are set up, if your typical entry-level membership offer is under $50, you'll likely want to start your sustainer program at $5 a month and pitch that level heavily.

If your typical entry-level membership offer is over $50, you may wish to pitch $10 a month much more heavily. While some donors may have the premium level in mind, these higher level donors value your station and will in turn be valuable donors over time.

That said, it's important to note that because most sustainers are added during on-air campaigns, and because most of them are coming on to your file as the result of a premium offer, the current 13 month median value of a sustainer, calculated by Target Analytics, is $145, which demonstrates that in many markets, many donors are joining at a rate even higher than $10/month.

The key metric to understand is that if you offer $5 a month sustaining memberships, you will attract more supporters than you would if you offer exclusively $10 a month and up. This is for the same reason that discount memberships are offered in acquisition mail. When the price point is lower, more people will be inclined to dip their toes into the water, which means that your member base continues to increase, and you have more people identified as supporters who you can contact to upgrade.

With the addition of Passport, this $5-entry level has become an increasingly popular entry level for new sustainers, and new donors, who are younger and may see their donation as a reasonable price to subscribe to the streaming service.

Particularly since a "new member sustainer on EFT" is the best donor to add to your file from a long-term perspective, the $5 a month price point can have many advantages. But be sure that you're not short-changing your future revenue potential, as the level at which a donor enters your program is the highest predictor of future revenue. Thus, this is a decision that must be made at each station in order to integrate properly into the current program and deliver maximum overall support.

Prepare Your Staff Well

A key step in fully launching a sustainer program is to bring together all of the people at the station who will touch or support the program in some way to be sure that it is managed in an exceptional manner that properly serves the donors who elect to participate.

While great sustaining programs are everybody's responsibility in membership, the best programs designate one staffer who becomes the "go-to" expert on all things related to the sustainer program. This is not necessarily a full-time position — in fact it rarely is — but rather it's the delegation of key responsibilities to one single person to ensure that the program is managed in the strongest manner possible.

Management needs to understand how sustaining memberships will be integrated into the membership program and what effect it will have both in the near- and long-term.

The finance department needs to understand how sustaining memberships will affect overall station budget planning as far as cash flow changes. They will also need to review and re-confirm their processes for accounting for funds that don't come in all at one time and for processing funds, particularly through Electronic Funds Transfer.

Your phone service and/or volunteer phone operators must be informed and prepared for revised scripts and providing training for these teams to be accurate, effective, and donor-centric is very important.

Your database managers and member service teams will need to review and possibly alter some back-end operations including creating new coding protocols (example 1, example 2); building quality checks to ensure that all funds are actually being processed monthly; setting up a recapture program to deal with bad credit cards; ensuring timely premium fulfillment; and developing customer service protocols for a variety of situations.

Your fundraising, marketing and production teams will need to create new copy, fresh scripts, new graphics and potentially pre-produced spots for use in on-air drives and to build year-round awareness.

This informative case study written up by KPBS after launching their sustainer program and running it for a year can be a helpful guide. It includes real-life comments, observations, and challenges faced by a variety of staff members central to the success of the program.

Setting Targets

No matter if you are starting a sustaining program from scratch or building up an existing one, it is important to set targets for growth. Developing a standard set of metrics that you can evaluate on a regular basis will help you see areas for growth and opportunities for the redirection of resources. Here are a set of metrics that you can look at and compare to national PBS targets.

  • Share of file as sustainers
  • Share of new donors joining as sustainers
  • Conversion of multi-year donors
  • Share of sustaining giving via EFT
  • Percentage of sustainers that make all 12 gifts
  • 13th Month retention rate of sustainers

Next Steps

Don't forget to print out your Sustainer Essentials Checklist to follow along as you delve into building an excellent sustainer program and dig deeper into all of the individual techniques shared here in the PBS Sustainer Learning Center.