June 1, 2023
Discipline: Membership


In a season of uncertain giving trends and unreliable expectations, one public radio station worked to ensure those factors would not translate into unmet goals. The fundraising team at New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) recently realized success over multiple drives by shifting their focus entirely to sustaining members.

The concept of sustaining membership is nothing new, especially among public media development professionals who’ve been on the forefront of this strategy for years. Beth Szelog, Senior Membership Associate at NHPR, shared that she recently came across a planning document from 2012, aspiringly dubbing it “the year of the sustainer.” I had the pleasure of speaking with both Szelog and Genevieve Andress, NHPR’s Membership Director, about their recent sustainer successes.

Their team’s positivity, creative collaboration, and ambitious goal-setting yielded results that speak for themselves. In their March 2023 drive, NHPR set a goal of 700 sustainers (defined as new, rejoining or increasing monthly gifts) and 927 sustaining members responded to the call! 

After experiencing a very challenging fiscal year—a reality many stations and other nonprofits can relate to in our post-pandemic world—the NHPR development team began to brainstorm and strategize new approaches to their campaigns. Not every single idea knocked it out of the park, but it was valuable for the team to learn what worked and what didn’t. For example, a monthly $3.14 sustaining ask for Pi Day coincided with an unexpected snowstorm on March 14th. The response was lower than expected, but the gifts that were made were accompanied by excellent listener feedback expressing gratitude for making a monthly giving level that was more inclusive and accessible. NHPR’s willingness to try new ideas and foster innovation offers valuable lessons for stations of any size.

Andress recalls that NHPR leaders wanted to set achievable FY23 goals to not only yield results, but also boost morale. “It always feels better to hit a goal than miss a goal,” she shares. “Because of the tactics we were planning and the way our sustainers support us, we felt confident we could hit sustainer goals.” She adds that working toward ambitious goals as a team and seeing members respond was just as valuable. “This has really been good for our team and the whole organization.” 

During this fiscal year, NHPR has reframed all their publicized goals to strictly sustainer numbers rather than dollar amounts. Whether it was the fall, end of year, or spring drive, the focus was all on sustainers. Andress acknowledges this tactic can result in sustainer growth that builds slowly, but states that member retention makes it worthwhile. To date, they’ve seen a 44% increase in the number of new sustaining members acquired during drives compared to last fiscal year.

There were four key tactics that worked well for NHPR to attract sustaining members. One measure, quite literally, was a progress bar embedded in the online pledge form. Donors who clicked to give were greeted with a built-in visual of how many sustaining members had already contributed. The progress bar was also repurposed in email messaging throughout the drive.

A second tactic was to introduce challenges tied to the number of sustainers. In March, an anonymous $35,000 gift was utilized as an “unlock challenge.” Throughout the drive, hosts talked about this available money on-air. The key to accessing it was reaching the goal of 700 sustaining members. This approach proved effective in recruiting brand-new sustainers, but also encouraging increased monthly support from current members.

Thirdly, NHPR broke up the larger, overall goal into smaller, day- or show-specific amounts and attached matching challenges. The pitch team emphasized the fact that a full year’s value of the sustaining gift would be matched, rather than just a single month’s contribution. While matching dollars have always been calculated this way, that fact was intentionally communicated with listeners this time around.

Lastly, NHPR implemented the tried-and-true strategy of increasing a donation’s impact. The March drive included an incredibly successful day when a $2-for-$1 match was offered for sustaining gifts. The method worked so well that the match funds were depleted by mid-day. The membership team temporarily put the challenge on hold while the major giving team worked quickly to secure additional matching funds to finish out the day. Talk about teamwork! During one day of their December drive, each sustaining pledge in any amount was matched with $200. Listeners really responded to the boost in their gift’s value, resulting in one of the most successful single days the team has had during an end-of-year drive.

Beyond these four key tactics, NHPR hired Colby Dudal as digital membership associate. This new position supports the fundraising team with responsibilities like copywriting, outbound texting, newsletters, and website headers, footers, and pop-ups. “There are more and more ways to get membership messaging in front of people digitally,” Andress notes. “Without someone who’s really thinking about that, those things can fall through the cracks.” 

Additionally, the online sustainer portal was spruced up to be more user-friendly, allowing donors to easily update their information or increase their gifts. Each drive, a “footprint of a fund drive” document is drafted, updated, and shared to keep all important details organized in a centralized location for the whole team. These practical steps, along with out-of-the-box thinking, have proven to be a winning combination during an uncertain fundraising season. 

Although the concept of sustainer cultivation is a familiar one in the public media realm, it’s still worthwhile to pause and reflect on its effectiveness. As the success of NHPR’s fiscal year demonstrates, there are still plenty of ways to re-energize strategies and boost sustainer growth.

Above photo: Nick Capodice and Rick Ganley during an on air drive in NHPR’s Studio D.