October 13, 2023
Discipline: Membership


This summer, as a group of my colleagues and I boarded our plane to Atlanta for the 2023 PMDMC Conference, much of Vermont was under water.

I don’t mean this figuratively. Heavy rains beginning on July 9th brough catastrophic flooding across the state. Homes, businesses, and entire communities were damaged. We were all feeling it on a personal level, but also professionally, as our entire organization came together to provide constant coverage of the floods. 

Our plane took off and landed, surprisingly without delays. Just as some of us sat down to lunch in Atlanta, my phone rang. It was our SVP of development.

He asked how I felt about doing a pledge drive the following week, to support flood recovery efforts in Vermont. I responded enthusiastically, “Heck yeah!” But, as you can imagine, I also immediately went into planning (and trying to not panic) mode. Planning a pledge drive? No problem. Planning one in less than a week from across the country? A bit of a challenge. 

In the end, a cross-departmental team came together to plan and launch the effort in five days, while half of the team was nearly 1,200 miles away at a conference. It was truly remarkable.

The effort was an incredible success. Through one and a half days of on-air pitching on both radio and television, and a week of digital campaigns, we raised more than $892,000 for the Vermont Flood Response and Recovery Fund. 

About a month later, our colleagues from Hawaii Public Radio reached out for advice on holding a disaster recovery pledge drive of their own. I was more than happy to meet with them and share tips and tricks, as well as scripts (see samples below). Click here for more on how to use your airwaves to support other nonprofits legally and responsibly

This got me thinking about access to information. After all, in public media, sharing information is what our organizations are designed to do. But after more than a decade in fundraising, I have never seen such openness to share strategies as I have in public media. This was made especially apparent at the PMDMC, where folks from across the country shared not just what works and new innovations in development, but how to implement it. There is very little competition. In the case of supporting other communities in crisis, this sharing is our superpower. It gives us the opportunity to leverage national fundraising expertise for the good of our audiences.

Vermont Public is a joint-licensee, and both Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS have a long history of fundraising for critical causes. Both legacy organizations raised money for flood relief following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and to support Vermonters during the COVID-19 pandemic. After 9/11, VPR held a campaign to help replace WNYC’s transmitter and raised money for the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Lending our fundraising expertise to support causes that impact everyone in our listening region has become part of our organization’s culture. At Vermont Public, we believe that as a public service organization, it’s our duty to support the community we serve in this way. 

After more than a decade of experience, we have developed strategies that work for these kinds of efforts, and have learned what to skip. Here are Vermont Public’s tips for fundraising to support disaster recovery in your own area including what we did differently this time. 

We were consistent in messaging, and flexible with asks.

The ask and case were very different for this campaign than we would use in a typical pledge drive. While fundraising on-air, the case was all about the flooding, and the recovery from it, and we made a point to not use our typical case for public media. We told pitchers that this was not the time to talk about all of the services we offer or the value our programs provide. 

We did not set any external goals at the start of the campaign, though did include day-part goals during on-air fundraising. This, combined with challenge funds, proved motivating for the audience.

We leaned hard into the theme of trust during pitching, focusing on the trust the audience puts in our news. One of the on-air folks said it best that day, “you trust us to provide accurate information, and you’ve trusted us throughout the flooding to make it clear how this impacts you and your neighbors. If you want to know how to help, trust when we say, making a gift to the flood fund now is how you can help.” 

While we had many donations of $25 or less, more than 60 individuals donated more than $1,000. The average gift for this campaign was $199. Occasionally our on-air pitchers suggested giving amounts, and the gifts reflected those direct asks. But largely, we offered a variety of suggestions, or simply said “give whatever amount you can,” and people certainly did just that!

We leaned heavily into digital strategies.

You’ve heard it in webinars and read it on blogs: Traditional, on-air fundraising methods still work, but not as well as they used to. While we did include a full day and a half of on-air fundraising during our flood recovery drive, we leaned heavily on other strategies. We deployed a series of emails, social media posts, and graphics on our website. Our campaign also included promotional spots on both radio and television, and podcast pre-rolls. For the first time we used a push notification on our app.

We trusted our audience.

I started my position at Vermont Public just six months before the flood recovery fund drive. I was appreciative of the opportunity to directly support recovery efforts, but I was also nervous about what fundraising for a cause other than our own mission would do in an already unsteady fundraising landscape.

With so many worthy causes in need of support, there was hesitation that this type of effort would only further fuel donor fatigue. How would our audience react to this ask, so soon after our June membership drive?

Well, within twenty minutes of the first email sent of the campaign, we’d raised $20,000. I can safely say that our audience responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. 

After we went off the air on Saturday, I spoke with our SVP of development on the phone. We were both truly blown away by the support of our audience. I said that in my many years of fundraising, I’d never seen anything like it. That’s when he said something that has stuck with me:

“Generosity is not a finite resource.”

We have to trust our audiences and donors all the time, in big and small ways. If your station chooses to take on fundraising for disaster recovery, a key element to the success of that is trust. You have to trust your donors to show up for the cause, and continue to show up for your organization later on. 

I am happy to report that the flood recovery fundraiser had no negative impact on our September pledge drive. We trusted our donors, just like they trust us to use their gifts responsibly.

Where do we go from here?

Part of our debrief conversations from the flood recovery fundraiser have involved how and when to use the leads generated from this campaign. Of the more than 4,400 donors to the campaign, nearly 1,110 were new donors. Even more were deep lapsed. 

Our philanthropy team has plans to cultivate the current members who gave at  a much higher level than they typically do to Vermont Public. Additionally, the non-members who contributed to the campaign will receive a special ask during our Giving Tuesday efforts. This seemed like a natural fit for the flood recovery donors. We partner with Vermont Food Bank for Giving Tuesday, where each gift to Vermont Public generates 18 meals for the Food Bank via the Vermont Community Foundation. We are hopeful that another humanitarian cause will be of interest to these new donors. They will receive asks via a postcard and email during the week before Giving Tuesday.

In a time where crises and natural disasters are seemingly more prevalent than ever, public media organizations will be called on more to undertake these types of campaigns. By continuing to trust our audiences, share resources, and lean into new digital strategies we can make sure these efforts are fruitful, and in turn better support the communities we serve. 

Samples shared from Vermont Public:

Sample Scripts and Copy:

Sample TV Promo