A friend in New Hampshire asked for some stories from my day job, in particular the stories from public radio fund drives. I’m in the middle of one right now, and the most important thing you need to know about fundraising is…

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…sorry. When you’ve been doing fund drives for a certain amount of time you could launch into a pitch at any moment. Asking an entire state for money is very simple and very complicated at once. Sometimes it is fun and other times it can strain your last nerve.

And people certainly have feelings about the drives. A lot of them feel compelled to tell me this. “I LOVE your show. I LOVE all the news. I LOVE the interviews. I HATE the pledge drives.” Well, thanks. I do not go into the dentist and say “I LOVE that my teeth are protected. I HATE the bright lights and the drills.” I don’t pester the guy who fixes the gutters and say “I LOVE that rain doesn’t pool up next to my house, but I HATE that you make me pay for the work.” That’s part of the deal, just like crowdfunding is part of public media.

Some of the people who LOVE to tell me how they HATE on-air fundraising also LOVE to suggest ways stations could raise money without asking for it. A+ for effort, everyone, but there are really only two ways to raise the money needed for the service that keeps it free and available to everyone. So you’re either getting fund drives a few times a year or you’re getting a bunch of commercials. Which I don’t think you’d LOVE.

I suppose we could start a Patreon. Have I mentioned my Patreon? Your support is what keeps this newsletter free for everyone!

Oh man, I’m doing it again.

My fund drive career started as a volunteer, answering phones at a public TV station. I was, at least on paper, in National Honor Society in high school and helping out at the fund drive was a way I could get credit for it without doing extra schoolwork. They got a bus to bring us all to the studio; one of my friends was suspended from school at the time, but he really wanted to do it so he signed up as an individual volunteer and followed the bus to the station in his family’s minivan.

They warned us about a guy who was infamous for repeatedly prank calling during fund drives and asking “what is the purpose of Channel 11?” They said the best thing to do if he called your line was to ignore him and move on to the next call, but I know that some of our too-clever-by-half high school students answering the phones did not strictly follow that best practice. I taped the fund drive at home in case I was on screen (my sweater was, but me, not really), and I saw a close-up of someone from our school very clearly saying, over and over, “We’re subliminally controlling your mind.”

I remember eating barbecued chicken wings for lunch that day, which I bring up because food is the most important part of running any kind of fund drive. Volunteers need to be fed and so do the people asking for money on the air. There are people in my line of work who go running a lot after a fundraiser to work off the “pledge drive five” they gained. Fundraising has traditionally been carb-heavy – lots of bagels and muffins, pizza and sandwiches, homemade desserts topped off with lots of caffeine. If the on-air people sound overexuberant at the end of the drive – I’m thinking of the time I heard someone tell the audience “You people always do this to me! You always wait until the last minute!” – it’s because they’re on less sleep than usual, fueled for days on starches and sugars and fats and they are tired, or maybe on the verge of losing it.

Which is why, typically, stations give a lot of guidance to the people in front of the microphones. There are whole departments of people setting goals, making schedules, writing up talking points and arranging for drawings and thank you gifts to generally lighten the load. (They also make sure there’s food, and they are loved for that.) This can help a lot, though sometimes there are lulls in the action and there’s nothing to do but suffer through it. One time I had to pitch during a drive when the entire news cycle was stories about the devastating Haiti earthquake. People all over the world were desperately trying to raise and send aid to there, and my job was to see if anybody had a few bucks left for the station too. You just do the best you can.

Also, the scriptwriters end up having to give a certain amount of latitude to the on-air people, because we have to figure out how to make the messages their own. Giving creative people a live mic and some room to ad-lib can get interesting. I worked with a guy who would bring a thesaurus into the studio, just to challenge himself. He’d find a bunch of five-dollar words in there, write them on his legal pad, and then figure out how to use them in fundraising appeals. “That story we just heard really shows how the malign activities happening in other parts of the world can afflict us right here. You count on us to bring you these stories, and the serendipity of our system is that we also count on you. So give now; don’t wait until later, that would be pejorative.

I stick with simple words; as someone who once confused a thank you gift with a web address and directed donors to a website ending in “dot mug,” I don’t want to trip myself up. Of course I do this anyway. Once I pitched out of a story about pirates off the coast of Somalia, and I reminded the audience that this is real life piracy, not “swashbuckling folks that go ‘arrr.’” I also once told people to give “now, not at some vague time in the future.” I have done a lot of early morning shifts, I guess.

Sometimes people take pity on you. Once a host got really, really sick during a drive and I was filling in for the mornings, even though I was already filling in for the afternoon. That night someone called in with a gift because she’d heard me and another host that morning and heard us again that night and figured if we were working that hard, she might as well kick in a little

What I can do well is make the drive a little more lively and hopefully more inclusive-sounding. In radio, you talk to one person at a time, and in a fund drive, you want that person to give right then and there, so my idea is to talk that one person out of all the reasons they have not to give and talk them into a small investment in something they enjoy. Too expensive? You choose the amount, five bucks will help. Too busy? It takes two minutes. Someone else will give? Nah, someone else is counting on you. And also, if you’re like Huey Lewis and you want a new mug, we’ve got one. My pal Rick in New Hampshire and I would challenge each other to add references to rock songs into our breaks. “Let’s do AC/DC,” he said, and for the next seven minutes we said things like “for those about to pledge, we salute you,” and “if you’re  thunderstruck by the quality news on Morning Edition, come on, come on, let me hear the money talk.” And it did!

In public radio the gold standard for fundraising has long been Ira Glass of This American Life, who would produce quirky, effective audio spots that would get the phones ringing. I’m not taking credit for any of that, but I did once give Ira Glass an idea. He had dropped by the studio to thank the phone volunteers on his way out to a fundraising event, which was going to be him challenging Peter Sagal of “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me” to a bowling match. I asked what his strategy was and he didn’t really have one. “Peter was on the bowling team,” he said. “I can’t beat him.” “Maybe you could try to knock him off his game my taunting him, like Muhammad Ali did to Sonny Liston.” “I like that,” he said. “I think I’m gonna try it.” I swear, when I listened to their bowling event on the air driving home, I heard Ira mock his older foe as “grandpa.” I felt like Mickey in the first “Rocky” movie.

One last thing to know about fund drives: the words you use really do matter. We’ve generally moved away from the term “pledge drive,” since people today usually give automatically through a credit card instead of calling up to pledge that they would mail in a check later. So it’s a fund drive or a member drive, and you donate, give or contribute rather than pledge. One time we were looking for like 15 more contributions to make a challenge to earn extra money, and my fellow pitcher was amped up, telling people how they needed to be one of the 15 more people to call, call, call, right now and end this challenge. My wife was answering phones at the station that day and a woman called up and said she wanted to help with the challenge.

“Great,” my wife said. “How much would you like to give?”

“What do you mean, give?”

“This is a fund drive, did you want to give?”

“No. The man on the radio said to call and help with the challenge, so here I am.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m a little confused.”

You’re confused?!?”

Thanks to all those who do give, and call, even those who aren’t sure why they’re calling.