Public radio’s struggles to retain its broadcast audience and find more donors are well documented, but Greater Public’s Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising reveal where the most significant opportunities for growth in individual giving programs lie. In some cases, the potential for more growth is significant. 

Benchmarks measure stations’ fundraising performance relative to their fundraising potential as defined by the amount of annual listening to each station. The audience data for these Benchmarks is measured by Nielsen Audio and provided to Greater Public by the Radio Research Consortium. 

The just-released FY23 Benchmarks survey the fundraising landscape of 78 stations. We analyzed data from 59 stations that participated in Benchmarks every year from FY19 to FY23 to provide a deeper understanding of what’s happened to public radio’s individual giving programs through several years of turbulence resulting from the COVID crisis. 

Here are the trends revealed from five years of data:

Broadcast Listening Declined

The broadcast audiences of our group of 59 stations (including streaming for many of them) saw an overall decline of 16% from FY19 to FY23. For some stations the drop was as high as 65%. Others gained as much as 35% more listening, but only seven of the 59 stations saw any gain at all.

It’s reasonable to assume that some listeners have moved over to public radio services where the listening isn’t included in Nielsen’s broadcast audience estimates (think podcasts here), but nothing in the fundraising performance we’ve examined suggests that any gains in non-terrestrial use of public radio are making up for losses on the broadcast side. And if the migration to non-terrestrial public radio services is substantial, then fundraisers need to focus more on turning all of that listening into givers and giving.

Membership Programs Are Raising More Money from Fewer Donors

Our 59-station group saw an overall 7% decline in givers from FY19 to FY23 while revenue over the same period grew, but only by 4%.

A big reason for the decline in givers is the decline in listening. If stations want to bring their member files back to their earlier peaks or grow beyond them, we need smart, aggressive and sustained external marketing to bring back listeners.

Are Sustainer Programs Starting to Show Cracks?

Sustainer or monthly giving programs have been just about the only bright spot in public radio’s membership cycle over the past five years. Revenue from public radio’s most loyal fans grew every year since FY19. The number of givers grew every year too – until FY23.

It’s too soon to know whether FY23 will be a blip or the beginning of a new trend, but one thing is clear: The days of “set it and forget it” are over. Welcome to the new era of set it, and nurture it, grow it, love it, take great care of it. Monthly givers retain at twice the rate of single-gift givers. Monthly givers are the only reason our membership programs haven’t fallen into an even deeper abyss, and it’s time we show them all the love they deserve. 

Mid-Level and Major Giving Programs Are Growing!

These programs aren’t just growing; they’re growing significantly.  Giving at $1,000 or more a year grew 57% from 31% more givers. The highest performing station in the group earned 287% more money from 167% more donors. At the $10,000+ level, stations raised 106% more money from 53% more major givers. 

Not every station saw the growth achieved by top performers, but their growth signals potential for everyone.

Public radio can take a page from the architects of Manhattan. When they ran out of room to put more buildings on the island, they started making taller buildings. Public radio needs to solve its member problem, but we won’t get there overnight. In the meantime, we can build our stations up with the vast unmet potential of many of our existing donors.

Some key approaches in this strategic evolution will include investing in your mid-level giving program to evolve beyond “membership+” into a program that leverages unique cultivation approaches. Create structural incentives to move donors along in the individual giving pipeline toward major giving when they have capacity. Support all staff who are part of your individual giving pipeline to work together for the common goal of revenue, and member care, instead of isolated departmental goals. Finally, consider shifting resources toward staffing in major giving when necessary; organizations can’t receive transformational gifts without asking for them and stewarding them.

Jay Clayton