The spring fundraising season is over. Summertime is a good time for us to take stock and look at the way we’re going about the task of raising money on Christian radio.
George Barna wrote a book in 1990 called The Frog in the Kettle. The title was based on the idea that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll hop out. It’s painful, and at some level he knows it will kill him. But if you put a frog into a pot of tepid water and very slowly raise the temperature, he’ll eventually boil. The temperature has been rising for quite some time within Christian radio fundraising, but many haven’t noticed.
A scripture from Paul to his spiritual son Timothy speaks to this. In the middle of a passage where he’s instructing Timothy to be faithful in his preaching, he also warns him: “…For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and will wander off into myths.” While Paul is speaking to Timothy here, I believe he is also speaking to all Christians, including us in Christian radio. He’s describing the frog in the kettle for Christian radio fundraising. So, I’d like to offer what I hope will be a timely warning to our industry.
I’ve heard it said that a myth is a lie sold as truth. As I listen to Christian radio fundraisers around the country, I sometimes hear statements that don’t sound true to me – and they’re being used to make the phones ring. Rather than depending on the quality of the service we’ve provided to our community, or the trust we’ve established with our audience, some fundraisers are depending on false statements to cajole listeners into giving. Here are two examples:
“A generous listener has just called with a match!” Certainly, this could be true. But what about when the funds we’re using for that match have been in our hands for weeks? Is it still true?
“I’m holding an envelope with a check in it. I don’t know the exact amount, but I’m told it’s at least $1,000. I’ve also been told if we don’t match that $1,000 during the next three songs – I must (cue sound-effect of paper shredder) destroy the check!”
Why did these Christian fundraisers resort to statements like that? I’d like to offer a list of 5 possible culprits that are turning up the temperature of the water for Christian radio fundraising.
1. In the absence of good strategy, we default to tactics almost every time. Far too many Christian radio stations don’t treat their fundraising as an all-year affair. Instead, they treat it as an occasional event that comes and goes. When that’s the case, we forget that successful fundraising events are almost always the result of a great case-for-support message we’ve been making all year long. When that case message isn’t continually present, or is overshadowed by other things, a station can find itself relying solely on tactics. Doing this can cause the talking points of your event to lean toward hyperbole rather than facts. When that happens, what is said by announcers may not line up with what listeners are experiencing during the event. I listened to a fundraiser this spring that kept promising me that my giving would support “more examples of changed lives.” But, after listening for three hours, I hadn’t heard any examples of people whose lives had been changed through the station’s ministry. The hosts were busy doing gimmicks and games but evidently didn’t have time to give examples of the life-change they’d been promising to listeners like me. (Or, maybe they didn’t have any examples to give.) A few days later I listened to a different station that had dozens of written and audio examples demonstrating how previous listener donations had been used to impact lives. The first station seemed to be concentrating solely on fundraising tactics while the second seemed to have real ministry strategies in place.
2. We’re not thinking about our future. Fundraising has become more and more difficult. More organizations are asking for an investment into what they do. Unfortunately, that contributes to listener fatigue, which causes some Christian radio stations to feel as if they must do more to get people to give. For some, that leads to short-sightedness in fundraising. The law of diminishing returns tells us that what we did today to produce a desired effect will not produce the same result tomorrow. We see this with alcoholism and substance abuse, and we see it in Christian radio fundraising. It takes more and more to achieve the same “high” we got the last time. Some radio stations have peered into the future, found the gaming and gimmicks to be “fundraising crack,” and weaned themselves from the practice. Those who have not may be ignoring two key questions: 1) Is this type of fundraising sustainable? 2) Is it wise? I’ve raised funds on Christian radio for more than 40 years and I can answer a clear “No” to both questions. If you’re working to keep your radio station valid and vital for decades to come, shouldn’t you be thinking about how your fundraising today impacts the station you’ll become in the future?
3. Consultant confusion. Let me pause at the outset to be clear: I’m not opposed to using consultants to help raise money. I’ve done that myself. But, how familiar are the people raising money for your station with your station? If they don’t make themselves so familiar with what you do that they sound like one of you, you may be doing yourself and your listeners a disservice. Outside fundraising expertise is best used to extend the character and mission of your station rather than simply meet a financial goal. I love listening to fundraising events where the on-air communication is focused so much on the mission that the money takes a backseat. You can hear the difference, and so can your listeners. More and more of our radio markets have multiple listener-supported Christian stations. If all other things are equal and one station seems only to be interested in making a temporal financial goal while another is demonstrating how my financial gift will be used for eternal purposes, which station will I feel better about investing in? I realize there will always be listeners who call because of a match or a prize, but I’ve seen enough fulfillment research to know that pledge calls don’t always result in fulfilled gifts. It IS possible for emotional requests to produce a great deal of giving “thunder” without actually bringing in very much giving “rain.” Be aware of that, and work to keep it from happening on your station
4. What you do on your station affects us all. Thanks to the Internet and market consolidation, our radio world has gotten smaller. Listeners can hear many more radio stations today than ever before, and this is causing confusion when it comes to fundraising. Have you ever had to tell a listener, “No, that wasn’t us,” when they were upset about something they heard on another radio station? While some listeners are more astute than others, what one broadcaster does often creates blowback for similarly-formatted outlets in the market. Some of us are our own worst enemies in this regard, since we’ll allow voices on our station to raise funds using the same tactics and wording they’ve used on other stations in our markets. Why would we do that? When listeners hear the same songs and programs on our stations that they’ve heard on another, they often assume the two stations are one and the same. If they’ve heard questionable fundraising tactics on one station in your market, don’t be surprised when they confuse that station with yours. Over time, bad fundraising tactics affect all our stations negatively.
5. The glory of God is not paramount in our fundraising. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7) When we depend on manipulation, when we create false scenarios, when we tell ourselves that the ends justify the means, we dishonor Christ. When our bottom line is centered on what we can get from our community rather than how we invest ourselves in the lives of our listeners, our priorities are out of whack. When announcers on our stations walk away from the hours they’ve just spent pouring their hearts out only to be judged by the number of pledges they brought in, our target needs to be repositioned and our vision refocused.
This was a hard article to write because I knew it would be difficult for some to read. And, I knew the subject matter might not be well received, so I kept putting it off. However, I’m for you. I’m for us as Christian radio fundraisers. I’m for our collective mission to reach people for Christ. So, if we’ve placed our stations on the hamster wheel of having to do more and more “stuff” to get the same result we got in the past, we would be wise to start asking some hard questions. We may not like the answers, but if our stations are to be vibrant and useful for the Kingdom of God, finding out what we can change now to ensure a brighter future will be a pain worth bearing.