November 21, 2023 by Robin Pizzo
We know that these are not easy times in public media. You may be experiencing membership or sponsorship revenue shortfalls at your organization, feeling uncertain about the future, and seeing proven techniques failing to produce the kind of results they used to. And the number of new members may be declining.
Why is this happening? Because we are no longer doing ‘business as usual.’ And we are not alone.
Giving across all U.S. nonprofits hit a record high in 2021, according to donor research conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. At a recent Greater Public webinar, Una Osili, Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, talked about how “dollars are up, but donors are down” across the non-profit sector: In 2000 66% of American households gave, and in 2018 only 50% of American households gave.
Our own data bears this out as well: In FY20 we saw a big jump in net revenue per listening hour, according to Greater Public’s Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising. Overall listening declined that year and the average gift per donor increased. Public radio has continued to receive more revenue from fewer donors consistently during the past three years, so we don’t anticipate a return to pre-FY20 trends.
Based on the Lilly School research, economic decline for average households accounts for about half of the decrease in giving households, but declining trust in institutions is another major factor. In this difficult environment, compounded by the potential of an impending recession, most nonprofits themselves are facing common issues:
Add to the list for public media: declining broadcast consumption and an aging audience/donor base.
Sobering, yes. But we have weathered significant changes in public media in the past, like when we built out corporate support programs for the first time and became experts in sustainer giving in recent decades. We have innovated outside of ‘business as usual’ and come out stronger. There are short- and longer-term things that we can do to put ourselves in the best possible position.
From the Lilly School research: “We found during the great recession that many nonprofits that remained engaged with their donors, even those that were not in a position to give, found that when the economy recovered those donors often came back to those organizations. In contrast, where organizations pulled back from engaging with donors and having those relationship-building opportunities it was much more difficult to recover from a downturn.”
Engagement and transparency build trust. Talk with donors about how they can help in this rough patch, in ways that strengthen your organization.
Another finding of the Lilly School research is that more and more donors are motivated to give because they identify with a cause. “In the past, donors sought organizations to support, today they look for issue-based opportunities to give.”
Don’t just talk about what you do and the services you provide, talk about why you do it: The importance of preserving our democracy by arming community members with factual information, educating our children, and supporting local musicians and culture. Focus your fundraising messaging around your cause, on-air, online, and in conversation with donors. Get specific: Talk about the value of your service today – in 2023 – and remove generalizations from your story. For example, share exactly why education coverage has increased, or why listeners are hearing more diversity in artists and composers in music programming.
Even in a recession there are households that are willing and able to give, if you engage them in ways and places that work for them – which increasingly may not be on-air funding drives. Think about your podcast listeners, event attendees, and digital users; what pathways have you given them to support you?
“For organizations seeking to engage with younger donors or donors of diverse backgrounds, technology can be a very important way to engage,” according to the Lilly School study. A key finding of the research is the growing role that technology is playing in giving, with 44% of Americans having donated via social media and/or crowdfunding. Great efforts at finding and testing new digital approaches are happening across the public media system and must continue if we are going to attract the next generation of donors.
The same economic factors that are affecting households and nonprofits are at play with corporate sponsors.
I recently saw a “FY24 Budget Insights” report from Market Enginuity, based on survey responses from their top billing sponsors. I’m determined to be encouraged by this statement in the survey report: “Generally, CEOs expect economic weakness to last through the end of 2023 or to mid-2024 in the regions where they operate.” The Conference Board expects a “mild and brief downturn in the U.S., with negative GDP growth in the first three quarters of 2023.“
Let’s all hope that these CEOs are correct, and that inflation and the advertising recession subside in the first half of FY24. We learned during the pandemic that staying in touch and looking for ways to support local businesses pay off when circumstances improve.
But here’s another statement from the report: “Digital advertising will account for 49% of all local spending.”
In the same way that we must meet new donors on the platform(s) they choose, we must provide sponsors and potential sponsors with opportunities to support us on their platforms of choice.
Prioritizing the wellbeing of staff and colleagues will amplify everything you do. Commit and work to cultivate an inclusive work culture in which staff feel trusted, supported, and empowered. A diverse staff – and their multiple perspectives – will allow more of your community to see itself in your content and fundraising. Now is not the time to let DEI efforts fall by the wayside.
We have a loyal donor base, we have a compelling cause, and we have some of the smartest people in the non-profit and media landscape on our teams.
We are not alone in facing the current challenges, and we have a strong foundation from which to pivot from ‘business as usual’ to explore and grow our understanding of how to engage new audiences, new donors, and new business support. It may not be easy, but the outcome for our industry will be worth it. We can do this!
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