check markMaking a Plan

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Follow along with this handy printable Sustainer Essentials Checklist.

First Get Everyone On Board

Because sustainer programs significantly alter the cash flow of an organization for the first 18 months to three years, it's essential that the membership department doesn't just act alone to maximize the program beyond on-air pledge drives without first building wider organizational buy-in to ensure that everyone understands the process, its long-term effects, and their part in making it work.

To begin, bring key people from across the station to the table — a group that may include some or all of the board of directors, management, finance, member center staff, database managers, premium fulfillment, marketing, production, and others — to explore together and reach consensus on how a sustainer program that maximizes participation, retention, and average gifts can have tremendous positive impact on the station bottom line.

It's vital to have the finance team at the table to ensure that cash flow implications are understood and managed from the start. And it's equally important that the data manager is involved in planning from the beginning. Improper management of sustainer accounts in the database is one of the key reasons some stations experience lower retention rates compared to top performers.

The best way to make the case and have an informed conversation that leads to an approved plan is to demonstrate evidence and present your own basic budget model that projects the growth in the health of your membership program inside the initial investment phase and beyond.

Build Your Annual Plan

Great sustaining programs are not just built on on-air campaigns. They reach far beyond with year-round activity that requires an annual plan which should be developed in lock-step with the annual budget.

Keeping your sustainer revenue over time is paramount to the overall success of your program and to the transformative growth that your station seeks. Thus, in your annual plan, it is critical to strategize for strong acknowledgement, cultivation and connection — which includes prompt delivery of premiums — as well as making sure back-end processes are fully operational.

This Sample Annual Plan will help you get started with your own.

While every element in the Annual Plan is covered in further detail throughout the Sustainer Learning Center, it's important to consider every possible way in which you can effectively make sustainers feel welcomed into your program, and to know which techniques work best for which types of results. At the very top level:

  • The most effective way to secure brand new sustaining members is on the air
  • The most effective ways to convert current members into sustainers is on the air and telemarketing
  • The most effective ways to upgrade sustainers to higher monthly giving is telemarketing and on the air, plus direct mail in certain circumstances
  • So far, sustainers have not been proven to be strong additional gift givers, so be cautious in over-mailing them for little return
  • Canvassing has been successful in adding sustainers at some stations

Budget for Growth

Successful sustainer programs are not free. They are the outcome of a very real investment in donor cultivation and retention as well as in securing upgrades to grow revenue even further.

The best place to start is with a budget using the Two-Year Monthly Revenue Calculator and Five-Year Annual Revenue Calculator, which builds a scenario on which to predict how revenue will grow on an annual basis.

Accompanying your budget model should be a goal-setting process.

How many sustainers should you expect?

According to data supplied by Target Analytics, in FY17, amongst the 24 top-performing TV stations, an average of 31% of their active file were sustainers, and 37% of their new members were sustainers. Data has shown that younger markets with a smaller percentage of donors over 75 will typically have a higher percentage of sustainers.

Overall, Target Analytics recommends a three-year goal for sustainers on the file of 30 – 40%, depending on the age of the market and some geographic differences in monthly giving performance.

The next critical step is to project your cash flow for the first year. This step is essential because the spreading out of sustainer payments over the course of the entire year — as opposed to a few weeks after each on-air drive — will create a significant difference in cash on hand for at least the first 18 months.

While working on the first-year cash flow, it is important to note that while fulfillment of pledges from sustainers will now be slower because it comes in monthly, overall revenue will continue to increase over time. And remember that the later in the fiscal year an on-air drive occurs, the less cash the station will realize in that particular fiscal year because the station will only receive part of the monthly payments within the remainder of the year.

Benefits of sustainers

  • Ongoing, predictable cash flow
  • Strong donor retention
  • Less dependent on high-cost, high-churn activities like on-air drives
  • Higher lifetime value
  • Strong prospects for planned giving
  • Engaged and loyal donors
  • More revenue to support the mission

That said, the long-term financial benefits of your sustainer program far outweigh the short-term reductions in monthly cash. These benefits include the fact that monthly giving makes station cash flow much more stable and predictable over time. Member retention increases, and the expense of sending renewal reminders is eliminated. Revenue becomes more diverse, making the station less dependent on any one fundraising method. And average giving amounts will likely increase.

Along with cash and revenue projections, it is essential to budget both staff time and expenses to achieve maximum success.

This means monetizing your annual plan. If you plan to send a summer cultivation postcard, include design, printing and postage in your budget. If you plan to outsource bad credit card phone calls to an in-bound call service, include this in your budget. If you plan to mail a small token of appreciation such as a notepad, magnet or window cling, include this in your budget too.

Even though well-run sustainer programs are typically more economical than many traditional membership techniques, if your program is operated as though it's free money and your sustainers are treated as though they're an automatic cash machine rather than valuable station partners, your station will not experience the full growth potential of this type of fundraising.

Lay the Groundwork on Process

A donor's experience with your organization is everything, and your ability to properly manage and maintain the data associated with this type of membership, will define their giving relationship with your organization for years to come. Thus, it's essential to ensure that the following processes are set up and ready to work seamlessly.

ELIMINATE THE INSTALLMENT OPTION AND LANGUAGE: Stations with the most successful sustainer programs have completely eliminated the option to fulfill a contribution via limited monthly installments that end after 12 months. The word "installment" is no longer used in solicitation, and the option has been removed from all direct mail, telephone and online solicitations and contribution forms. This can look like a scary step to take for many stations, because installments have been a payment option for decades. But stations that have made this move have received few-to-no complaints, and have lost no revenue.

  • A thorough plan for management of each step of the sustainer membership process
  • Monthly automatic processing and payment options available to donors
  • Renewal expiration date roll-over set up in the CRM/database
  • An ongoing process to update expired, cancelled or declined credit cards
  • A comprehensive source code structure for sustained giving, beginning with acquisition and moving throughout the giving life of a donor for proper analysis