As public media professionals, we may take for granted a phrase we so often say to our radio and television audiences: “We rely on support from listeners and viewers like you.”

For WGVU Director of Development Aaron Turner, this messaging is a missed opportunity.

“It creates a mindset that someone else is supporting public media – whether it’s a foundation, or the billion-dollar Bill Gates’s of the world – and so the average listener or viewer doesn’t need to support us.” 

Instead, Turner wants our audiences and funders to hear from us that public media is an indispensable contributor to our communities with impact that is worthy of as much support and investment as any other community organization or nonprofit. Turner and his development team at WGVU have been reimagining the station’s fundraising operation, including the structure of their team, as well as WGVU’s messaging to individual members, sponsors, and philanthropic organizations. “We’ve really dug into what it means to be a member of public media and the value of public media as a community resource, and not just a TV or radio station,” says Turner.

That work has paid off with more revenue dollars supporting the station’s service. WGVU is a mid-sized dual university licensee with a budget of nearly $8 million and a staff of around 40. In 2022, WGVU had its best-ever fundraising year, bringing in more than 12% over the previous fiscal year. In reimagining a comprehensive, integrated fundraising strategy for the organization, Turner has drawn inspiration from philanthropic best practices in the nonprofit sector outside of public media. He recently sat down with Greater Public to discuss the ways WGVU is innovating in a tough fundraising climate.

Reimagine the Value of Sponsorships

Historically, like many public media stations, WGVU has sold on-air underwriting inventory in exchange for corporate or philanthropic dollars. Turner has been experimenting with a new strategy of seeking opportunities that reflect the value of public media’s role as a community pillar.

He shared an example of one of the station’s popular community events called Kids Day at the Zoo where families can attend Grand Rapids’ John Ball Zoo at a discounted rate. In the past, WGVU sold corporate sponsorships for the event at different tiers that provided a certain number of on-air underwriting spots. “Even though we were doing a community engagement event, we were still approaching it from a sales perspective,” says Turner. “As a media organization, we were failing to articulate our value as a normal, regular nonprofit would.”

Turner says his lightbulb moment came when he learned that a different organization that sponsored Kids Day at the Zoo had donated $20,000 to a local hospice organization’s annual gala that same year. This organization had never given more than $2,000 to support Kids Day at the Zoo. Turner asked his underwriting team why the sponsor wasn’t giving more. The response: That’s as high as they will ever go. Turner then asked, “What’s the difference in our messaging and value proposition, as to why this organization feels we’re only worth two grand, and we’re afraid that if we ask them for a penny more they’re going to leave us?” 

He says there’s always going to be less money in marketing budgets, which is a limited commodity, compared to the funds stations can generate through value-driven philanthropic sponsorships. “The value we’re offering is about giving sponsors a chance to support kids and families in the community.” 

Of course changing the messaging isn’t enough if the structure of an underwriting team is built around selling inventory. When the majority of WGVU’s five-person underwriting team retired a few years ago, Turner and General Manager, Jim Rademaker, used that transition as an opportunity to redesign roles. They shifted underwriting staff to salaries and eliminated underwriting commissions. He introduced a new incentive of tying 20% of an underwriting staffer’s yearly revenue goal to securing philanthropic sponsorships for special events and programming. At the time of our interview, Turner was hiring for a new staff position focused specifically on corporate and community partnerships with a focus on community events. “Galas in our community are netting $100,000 and so I’m bringing someone in that has that experience,” he says. 

Build Bridges Within Individual Giving

Turner understands why stations cling to fundraising systems that worked well 20 years ago. There’s a fear of evolving because we all have bills to pay. But there’s also a cost to staying stagnant. Among the many changes Turner has stewarded at WGVU is cross-training membership staff in major gifts cultivation. “If you give everyone the tools, then it allows you to game plan differently,” he says.“We have 22,000 members on file. There’s no way in the world one person can mine and really do the data and research on all of those members. So everybody takes a chunk now.” Turner says it’s about taking a holistic approach and spreading the load. “Even if you only have a file of 20 people, if you can really drill into those 20 people and really make an impact, that ultimately helps us,” he says.

The typical WGVU donor contributes $60 a year. How do you get donors with interest and capacity to level up? For his part, Turner implemented a mid-level giving program, which hadn’t truly been cultivated at WGVU before. The program focuses on donors who give $500-$999 a year, stewarding them toward higher giving levels with some personalized cultivation, without the fully customized relationships that are the focus in major gifts.

A new focus on planned giving is another part of Turner’s playbook. He and his colleagues identified people who had given to the station for 20 years or more, regardless of giving level. All of those longtime donors now receive a planned giving workbook. In addition, WGVU has produced television and radio spots that talk about the importance of planned giving. 

Turner has invested in these changes for the long term. He anticipates that major and planned gifts will be growing revenue drivers for WGVU in the coming years. 

While on-air drives are still important, they are budgeted to make up a smaller percentage of the station budget. “There are people who will only give through pledge drives, right? You’re not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We’re just going to create other opportunities. That’s just smart business. It’s diversification of your revenue sources,” he says.

Include Audience Members as Ambassadors

As a university licensee, WGVU doesn’t have direct access to Grand Valley University’s board of trustees. Like many similarly structured stations, this leaves them without the fundraising proxies and community ambassadors that almost any other nonprofit would have in its corner. In lieu of board members, WGVU has turned to its audience to play this role. Turner has engaged in what he describes as an “aggressive marketing campaign” to enlist audience members in conveying WGVU’s value. The team filmed ‘value spots’ in viewers’ homes so audience members and their children could convey why WGVU is an asset. This year marks WGVU’s 50th anniversary, and so Turner has been leveraging that milestone to make an even stronger case for why the station matters. 

Taken together, all of these examples illustrate how WGVU is seeking to innovate its approach in each area of development, resisting traditional silos while thinking expansively about impact in order to thrive in our rapidly-changing fundraising environment. “We are the only organization in our community that does what we do,” says Turner. “And if we can’t articulate the fact that we are a nonprofit, a community resource, and a service that uses media and community engagement as our mission executer, then we’re missing a golden opportunity.”