Conversion & Upgrades

Conversion & Upgrades

2 arrows in a circleTechniques and Channels

Start with On-Air

The benefit of converting and upgrading sustainers on the air is that it's virtually cost-free. All you need to do is make sure that your fundraising breaks and on-air spots include targeted messaging. While scripts and messaging are covered in much more detail in the on-air fundraising section, these are the main ideas behind the basic conversion and upgrade message:


"Perhaps it's time for you to renew your support of KXYZ. A great way to renew AND do a little more for the programs you care about is to become a sustaining member with an ongoing monthly donation that automatically continues each year. It's easy to set up through your bank account or on your credit card, and you'll never need to worry about taking care of your renewal again – you'll be all set as a supporter for the long-term."


"Maybe you're already a sustaining member, giving five… ten… or twenty dollars a month in support of KXYZ. If so, this is a great time to consider again how much this station means to you and then add in a few extra dollars each month to continue to be here for the programs you love. It's so easy to take care of online or on the phone. And every little bit makes a big difference – even just a few dollars a month."

The challenge with conversions and upgrades on the air is twofold. First, the majority of your on-air time should be spent encouraging new members to join the fold, so there is not typically adequate time to build in a frequent enough upgrade message to inspire many people to act. Additionally, you're speaking to a mass audience of non-members, one-time members, sustainers, small donors, and large donors, making it impossible to target your appeal to any one specific person.

Make sure you understand how your database works, and that your data entry team is fully trained to deal with upgrading current sustainer donations so that the interaction is seamless for the donor and so that no payments are missed for the station. For the donor, make sure your website has clear and simple instructions for upgrading sustainers, and that your phone volunteers and/or call center are up to speed on how to handle such conversations.

That said, it's important to keep the idea front and center that becoming a sustainer is only a starting point, and that donors can continue to add more to their giving throughout their time with your station.

Most Effective Technique – Telemarketing

Telemarketing is one of the most effective methods through which to convert and upgrade sustainers because it's a personalized, person-to-person ask that acknowledges each specific donor's current giving and relationship to the station. But it's also one of the most expensive techniques when it comes to investment in future revenue. Thus, particularly as you get started with telemarketing, the earlier in the fiscal year you can conduct your first campaigns, the better it is from a cash flow to expense standpoint.

With upgrade telemarketing, depending on the firm conducting the calling, the time supporters have been on the file, the payment method they use, and the message employed to encourage an upgrade, response rates can average 10-20% with $4-$8 average monthly upgraded donations. The firm you work with should provide you with realistic projections based on calling they conduct for other stations.

For conversion calling, response rates usually range between 3%-7% with an average gift of $8-$12 per month depending on how current and active the donors are. There are of course some exceptions. For example, if you are launching your first ever sustainer conversion campaign and include a segment of lapsed sustainers to reactivate, your response rate can be as high as 15% with an average gift of $12. This is why you want to make sure your firm provides you with realistic projections for these calls too. Be sure to include new members who have recently given in your data criteria as they are the most likely to become a sustainer.

Another technique that can be successful in telemarketing is to change the first ask on your renewal and lapsed telemarketing calls to a sustainer ask. Typically at most stations, by time you're calling a member for a renewal, they are well into the direct mail series and have not yet responded. And your lapsed people have moved even further away from the regular, annual donation cycle. Especially for your difficult-to-renew on-air acquired members, a first attempt at a sustainer conversion can be quite fruitful for the long-term with donors who respond positively.

An effective telemarketing list for stations just venturing into a sustainer program is to call all current and former monthly installment donors to convert them over to credit card or EFT sustainers.

From a strategic standpoint, it's best to run all types of sustainer calls simultaneously so that the callers can go deep and stay effective with your station message and with the specifics of the sustainer appeal. A handful of stations conduct calls like this on a monthly basis, but the majority of stations now conduct annual or semi-annual campaigns, typically in the fall and spring, although January can also be a strong time to pitch added giving to fund the year to come.

Many databases require that a sustainer upgrade must be entered as a new pledge. Because of PCI compliance rules, which require stations to keep only credit card aliases on hand, this means that when calling a current sustainer who pays by credit card, the caller is required to recapture all the credit card details again. Be sure to work with your telemarketing firm and database manager prior to the start of the campaign to work through these issues and hurdles so that the member experience with the call is as seamless and trustworthy as possible.

Some telemarketing firms are just beginning to offer Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) conversion and payment options. If this is available and they are PCI compliant, be sure to set up data testing and sample text files prior to the campaign launch so that the process is as seamless as possible.

The telemarketing section includes many more specific details on how to effectively launch and manage sustainer telemarketing including choosing a firm, budgeting, messaging, scripts, and ask strings.

Direct Mail

It can be challenging and expensive to convert and upgrade sustainers through direct mail. When you consider why, there are a number of valid reasons. First, direct mail is the easiest technique to ignore, often hitting the recycle bin before it even gets opened. Second, it's likely that the majority of your current sustainers came to you through an on-air appeal, and thus, have not developed the habit of giving through direct mail. However, when used strategically, direct mail can still be a fruitful technique.

One of the most common methods stations employ to "upgrade" sustainers is by adding them as a segment to additional gift mail. The idea behind this strategy is that these loyal constituents have committed to supporting your station in an ongoing way, and that the special additional gift appeal — program funds, year-end campaigns, member challenge funds, etc. – will be effective in garnering additional support from sustainers.

It's important to note that at least based on the data so far, this theory has not been borne out. Sustainer segments in additional gift mail can often perform at rates of less than 1%, which means that the effort is likely netting negative revenue on this segment of solicitation.

Thus, it's very important to code any sustainer segments included in additional gift mail separately for analysis so you can determine how each segment performs and determine the best strategy for the future. Additionally, if a large sustainer segment in an additional gift mailing happens to drag down the overall performance, without proper coding you may erroneously conclude that the appeal was not effective, when in fact the one-time givers actually participated at very high levels.

If you have the flexibility to adapt your additional gift copy in small ways to recognize your donors as sustainers, this can also help improve results. We spend so much time telling sustainers that they're special, that they come to value being recognized in communications. If they're not recognized, they will occasionally contact your customer service team to tell you when you haven't done so. This tactic also helps alleviate the potential confusion of a sustainer thinking that their gift has somehow lapsed because they've received a solicitation in the mail.

That said, it's important to make sure sustainers are still in some sort of direct mail solicitation mix at least a couple of times a year to maintain contact and remind these donors that their continued and increased support is vital.

The best strategy is to determine which additional gift mailing might resonate strongest with this particular group of donors and then send them just the first effort. Some stats have shown that engagement appeals like member surveys or a noteworthy match opportunity can be more successful at improving sustainer additional gift performance in the mail.

Outside of additional gift mail, there are several ways you can effectively focus on converting and upgrading sustaining donors.

  • Include a sustaining option on renewal and lapsed mail. Technically, this technique has no cost, but it does come with a caution. Testing at some stations has demonstrated that this addition can depress response, so be cautious. Donors quickly develop habits of giving, and your tried and true long-time renewers are probably your least viable sustainer prospects.

Ask for an upgrade on an EFT conversion mailing, which can give you a two-for-one punch. More details on this technique are included in the direct mail section.

  • Ask for an upgrade in the annual tax statement – a mailing you already are required to send. It's a great time to ask people to fund the year to come.

  • Ask for an upgrade with a version of your calendar year-end additional gift mail that is specifically targeted to your current sustainers. Make sure this is coded as a sustainer mailing, not as an additional gift mailing so you can track it properly.


Coordinated e-appeals should follow any direct mail campaign that reaches sustainers.

Additionally, consider adding a sustainer pitch to one or more of your e-renewals, and/or landing the renewing donor on a page with a sustaining gift ladder rather than a one-time gift ladder. Just like direct mail renewals, however, be cautious that this technique does not depress your response from donors, because it's still more important to keep maximum members on your file than to renew them as sustainers.

One specific email technique has proven to have extremely positive results when it comes to upgrading sustainer giving. It's the pre-drive email that thanks sustainers for their support, asks for their patience in the upcoming drive, offers them a chance to get in on the prize drawings (if applicable), and then subtly asks for an upgraded donation.

Your Customer Service Team

Every inbound call to your station, or to a chosen answering service, can be an opportunity to convert a one-time donor to sustaining membership, or to upgrade a sustainer to a higher monthly gift. It can be highly effective to have your team make the sustainer connection in phone calls and emails to donors. Be sure to code these successful interactions separately and credit staff for increasing the revenue coming in to the station.

  • Ask for an upgrade when a donor contacts the station to update their credit card (also be sure to ask for a switch to auto pay through Electronic Funds Transfer to save the station expensive credit card processing fees so their gift can be used more efficiently)

  • Ask current single-pay members to transition to the "popular and simple" sustainer plan

  • Ask non-members to join as sustainers with a low-dollar appeal

Next Steps

Explore the individual technique sections for even more ideas on how to maximize each technique to convert current members and upgrade current sustainers to maximize growth and revenue over time.