Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Early Lessons from Planet Money’s Kickstarter Campaign


NPR’s Planet Money launched a Kickstarter campaign last week to help fund a story it wanted to produce on the life of a t-shirt. This is NPR’s first foray into direct listener fundraising.
As we wrote in previous postings and in a commentary for Current.org, we think NPR should be raising money directly from listeners but doing it in a manner that results in significant financial benefits for its member stations.  The early lessons from Planet Money’s Kickstarter campaign demonstrate this is possible.
First, The Planet Money Kickstarter campaign has all of the traits of good fundraising. The core appeal ties back to the content and the value it creates for the potential giver, the “ask” is straightforward and empowers the giver make a difference, the gift amount is perceived to be affordable and still have impact, and it is easy to give.
Second, the campaign is going well.  The outreach was modest by network standards and the goal was an even more modest $50,000.  That goal was exceeded within the first 24 hours.  In just under 8 days of a 14 day campaign, nearly 11,000 backers had contributed more than $311,000.  These are pretty good results for relatively little effort.
Third, there’s how NPR handles its relationship with its member stations as it dips its toes in the forbidden fundraising waters.
When it comes to that station relationship, there are three ways NPR can approach raising money directly from listeners.  The first would be for NPR to forge ahead without involving stations.  To NPR’s credit, it did not choose this option.
The second approach would be for NPR to treat stations as minority partners in the process. This is the option NPR chose for the Planet Money Kickstarter campaign.  NPR plans to use excess revenues from the campaign for local station training initiatives. Stations will benefit a little bit from this fundraising effort but only in ways that NPR deems appropriate.
There are several downsides to using this approach long-term, the most important of which is station financial health.  The financial impact of direct listener fundraising on station revenues will be significant.  Stations will raise less money from listeners when NPR is asking those same listeners for support. Offering free “extras” to stations will do nothing to improve long-term station finances or the working relationship between NPR and its member stations.
The third approach would be for NPR to treat stations as full financial partners in the process.  Stations will have to end up with more working revenue if NPR is to raise money directly form listeners. This is covered in our Current.org commentary on revolutionizing public radio’s economy.  It can be done and it will help the public radio system grow stronger.   
There will likely be more than $300,000 in excess revenues, maybe $400,000+, by the time the Kickstarter campaign ends.  NPR could pass that revenue along to stations in the form of dues relief during its next quarterly billing cycle.  It’s not a lot of money for each station, but it would be welcomed by almost all.
And that brings us to another benefit of the full financial partner approach.  It is the fastest and most permanent way to restore high levels of trust between NPR and its member stations.  We’ll have more on that in our next posting.

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