Save Big Bird!

| by Priscilla Bratcher

Year end fundraising appeals can be powerful and productive or pitiful and painful. Which are yours?  I've seen all kinds and I think know which ones work best.

Are you in a rush to make the last minute appeals to hit a June 30 fundraising target expected by your Board?  If so, keep the message simple, strong and inviting.

I learned this lesson when I worked for public television in the 1980s. At that time, PBS had an extensive communication and professional development program for fundraisers across the system (and this was before email and the Internet were widely used!) As a result, we here in North Carolina could learn lessons from stations large and small all over the country. My colleague Camille Patterson (now at the North Carolina Museum of Art) and I even traveled to some of the best (NY, DC, Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul) to learn the secrets of successful on air fundraising. If you've been a public TV fan in NC for some time, you may remember that we had a policy of no premiums, no giving levels, no inducements to donate . . . only the strength of our arguments!

One mistake we saw some stations make (not the ones mentioned above) was to threaten to take Big Bird off the air if viewers didn't give. Although this was successful in the short-term, it could really only be used once and, at its core, was utterly disingenuous. Sesame Street was fully funded and cost stations nothing to air except their own transmission expenses. Any station manager would be foolish (or fired) to cancel it as it not only attracted a broad cross-section of viewing families but also was utterly consistent with the public television mission.

So why did they do it? In our view, it was a case of chasing short-term dollars at a very high price, the cost of institutional credibility.  And viewers eventually got wise and called their bluff.  But by then, their brand had been tarnished.

No matter what kind of nonprofit or cause, we all have a Big Bird. So as you do your last minute telemarketing, email blasts, web appeals, direct mail and conversations with Board members and donors, please resist the urge to take a short cut by threatening Big Bird. Instead go for the inside supporter, the team member, the family appeal.

  • You've been with us all year, help us make this one the best yet
  • Join our team! With you, we can get to the finish line
  • We’re a winning team and with your year-end help, we can provide even more services to more people next year

Poor old Big Bird. Good thing he's perennially six years old and hasn't a clue how often his demise has been predicted.

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