August Sustainer Saturday at UNC-TV Delivers Results and Engages Sustainers

The University of North Carolina’s public television network, UNC-TV, has recently been experimenting with its approach to pledge. It has reduced self-help programming and the number of days devoted to pledge drives. As a result, it has been looking for more mission-driven fundraising options to counter the expected decrease in pledge revenue.

Monique Edwards

One approach has been a successful digital campaign (UNC-TV Sees Revenue Rise: Ups Digital Investment & Reduces On-Air Fundraising). Another has been a fresh focus on sustainers.“We wanted to be creative and think of a way to offset that revenue loss by using our most effective sustainer acquisition tool – on-air – to bring new members onto the file as sustainers.” says Monique Edwards, UNC-TV’s annual giving manager. “We wanted something that worked in conjunction with our mission –to talk impact and what we do—and sustainers tie into that.”

Giving Sustainers Their Own Identity

To start, Edwards began rebranding the network’s sustainers with a dedicated “Sustaining Circle” logo. “I wanted to give them an identity. There’s something special in the individuality that sustainers value,” she says. More than just getting a gift, the feeling of being part of a special segment of the audience makes a difference. Beginning in late 2016, UNC-TV began using the new logo every time it referenced sustainers on-air, in print and digitally through emails.

To personalize the donor experience, we reached out to our sustainers and asked them to tape testimonials for us, about their experience being a sustainer and why being this type of member was important to them. The testimonial that resonated the most on social media was one that connected with that specific demographic – someone who was a millennial herself, mother of two and fan of PBS children’s programming.

Then, the network planned a June Sustainer Saturday event to coincide with that month’s drive. “It was a last-minute decision,” Edwards admits. “Maybe we did a week’s worth of planning. We decided to dedicate one day that was sustainer-focused. We didn’t pledge or preach to premiums. We only talked about sustainers, impact and mission.” Edwards and crew saw the day as an opportunity to educate their audience about how vital sustainers were to the station’s goals—and to weed out those who gave with a transactional mindset. “We wanted to retrain them to look at sustainers differently. They were looking at it as an installment option in which they would pay for a gift over 12 months,” Edwards explains. Instead, the on-air segments promoted the mission-driven value of sustainers apart from premiums.

“There was very little structure,” she says about June’s Sustainer Saturday. “The only place it was communicated was on-air. We created a bumper for it but didn’t have a spot.” No digital or social media components supported the campaign.

But during that one day, UNC-TV was able to bring on 43 new sustainers who provided $5,703 in annualized revenue. Sustainers accounted for 47 percent of the revenue on that day, with 91 percent originating on-air. Because the planning had been so limited, the results were encouraging. UNC-TV saw potential. Could putting more effort into another Sustainer Saturday bring even better results?

Strategy Pays Off

Edwards and other staff members began strategizing about another Sustainer Saturday in August. “We decided to anchor a Sustainer Saturday with a sustainer challenge to see if it could drive even more participation,” she says. The network began promoting the event almost two weeks ahead of time. “We circulated information about the event through all our channels – digitally, on-air, the website, and print.” They also used this opportunity to cut new recapture and information spots – used as roll-ins during Sustainer Saturday. Rather than premium gifts, sustainers at any level received a branded UNC-TV Sustaining Circle kit plus a sustainers-only t-shirt unveiled on-air during the event. “I just wanted to see if we could drive new sustainer participation,” says Edwards.

A key part of the strategy was ensuring the phone volunteers on the day of the event were sustainers themselves. “They interacted on-air and gave testimonials on-air,” she says. “On the phones, they were able to educate viewers calling in. A large number of calls that came in were members contemplating becoming a sustainer and asking what that experience was like.”


The goal for the August campaign was to bring in 200 new sustainers – Sustainer Saturday being the final push to achieve that goal. By the end of the day, the station had 245 brand new sustainers with more than a quarter of them (68) coming in on Saturday – an increase of 37% over the 1st Sustainer Saturday in June. The average gift for the June Saturday was $11.97, compared to an August average of $15.12.

A metric which is sometimes more difficult to measure is the impact of “reason for giving.” We hoped our new approach of mission over premium would decrease the number of transactional donors. We’ve been seeing a steady decline in the number of donors we lose immediately following a drive due to “buyer’s remorse” or bad credit card status. Compared to the 2016 August drive, we had 55% fewer sustainers who came on during the drive revert to bad credit card status or cancel the 1st month following the drive. This resulted in a 43% decrease in the amount of annual lost revenue.

Knowledge = Better Pitching = Higher Engagement

The results caught the attention of Monique’s colleagues at UNC-TV. “I’m the sustaining specialist here and know in-depth about the program, but you’d be surprised how other staff doesn’t know much about it,” she explains. “They aren’t as in the weeds with sustainers as I am.” But it’s important for every member of the team to be educated because they’re the ones helping communicate the message to viewers. As they become more comfortable and confident discussing the value of sustaining members, their on-air pitch will improve. “The more we educate the public, the more we educate our staff, too,” Edwards says. And while the presence of the sustainers on the phones helped drive these positive numbers, Edwards also believes it was a great way to keep those veteran sustainers engaged. “As we cultivate [sustainers] more, I’m seeing a better response and willingness to participate. They want to feel included as opposed to us just corresponding with them.”

She and UNC-TV are already looking forward to the next drive. “As soon as that Saturday ended, ideas for the next one were coming at me,” she says. At the top of her list is a Sustainer Saturday branded around converting check pledges to electronic funds transfer (EFT). “We’re hopeful this is the start of something.”

Questions? Tracy Ferrier I Director I PBS Development Services or Monique Edwards I Annual Giving Manager I UNC-TV