More Vehicle Donations and Successful Pledge Drives: A Simple Solution to Getting Both

By Jay Clayton, Jay Clayton Associates

We’ve known for a long time that pledge drives disrupt listening, but now we know they also disrupt vehicle donations. The good news? They don’t have to.

Before I suggest what should be a simple solution to maintaining your station’s normal flow of vehicle donations while you stop everything else to raise money, let me bust a public radio myth. The myth suggests it’s a bad idea to ask for vehicle donations during pledge drives when you’re asking people for money.  This could confuse your listeners. Some of them might give you vehicles instead of money, thus preventing your station from meeting its pledge drive goals.

Do you have to stop talking about vehicle donations when you're fundraising? No way, says public radio insider Jay Clayton. (Photo: WKMS, flickr.com)On-air fundraisers hard at work at WKMS in Murray, Kentucky. Do you have to stop talking about vehicle donations when you're fundraising? No way, says public radio insider Jay Clayton. (Photo: WKMS, flickr.com)

The fact that I know of no actual research in this area of fundraising won’t prevent me from stating with 150-percent confidence that this myth has no basis in truth. Consider these facts:

  • Underperforming pledge drives don’t meet their goals for a wide range of issues, none of which appear to have anything to do with vehicle donation. So, even if you’re not headed towards achieving your goal, there’s no evidence to suggest that dropping vehicle donation calls to action will help matters.
  • Based on Car Talk Vehicle Donation Services' data from the past six months, a well-performing major market station can expect to receive roughly three to four dozen car donations in a typical week. With that in mind, let's take a look at those weeks a station has a pledge drive going on. Pledge drive weeks aren't typical, of course. For one thing, stations don't tend to get as many vehicle donations during a drive. But, for the sake of discussion, let's assume that's the case. And let's assume the worst case scenario for the impact on the fund drive--that each of those vehicle donors would have otherwise made a pledge to the station, but withheld it and donated their cars instead. In this scenario, the station would need donations from just 40 other listeners to make up for that lost pledge income. That's from among the thousands of gifts a station this size typically gets in an on-air fundraiser. 

A major-market station with a strong program can expect to get three or four dozen vehicle donations per week. (Photo: Kimberly Gauthier/Keep the Tail Wagging, flickr.com)
A major-market station with a strong program can expect to get three or four dozen vehicle donations per week. (Photo: Kimberly Gauthier/Keep the Tail Wagging, flickr.com)

Executive summary? You’d be hard pressed to make the case that the thousands of dollars you raise from a few dozen donors are dramatically impacting your fundraising drive results.

So the question isn’t whether stations should ask for vehicle donations during pledge drives; the question is how can they do it while avoiding the three C’s – confusion, clutter and conflict.

Here’s a simple suggestion: instead of running your usual vehicle donation spots during your drive, create messages that sound like underwriting credits and run them in underwriting avails. This is a particularly good idea if your station’s underwriting inventory isn’t sold out.

Why does this approach make sense? Three reasons:

  • Your listeners are already used to hearing underwriting messages during your pledge drives, so there’s no reason to be concerned about clutter.
  • You could probably get a lot more vehicle donations for your station if you maintained your program’s visibility throughout the 40 or 501 weeks a year you spend raising money over the air.
  • You can get creative with your messages while adhering to FCC, NPR and station underwriting guidelines.

Many listeners donate vehicles for the same reason they give money: they love your programming. "I have grown up with both parents constantly listening to NPR, so I habitually tune in," writes Elizabeth DuMont-McCaffrey, who donated her car when it "overheated for the last time at a friend's wedding."overheated for the last time at a friend's wedding Many listeners donate vehicles for the same reason they give money: they love your programming. "I have grown up with both parents constantly listening to NPR, so I habitually tune in," writes Elizabeth DuMont-McCaffrey, who donated her car to WAMC in Albany, New York when it "overheated for the last time at a friend's wedding."

This is where your vehicle donation program vendor comes in. Ask your vendor to help you craft messages to promote your program within your station’s underwriting guidelines, spots that are funny and stand out from the rest of your underwriting credits.

Here’s an example:

We’re funded by our listeners, including Joe Smith of Springfield, who gave his ’83 Subaru to the WXXX vehicle donation program to keep the road free of his car and his radio station free of commercials, information at www.station.org, and by…

To the best of my knowledge no one’s tested this approach yet, but it could be a simple solution to maintaining your usual pace of vehicle donations during your pledge drives.  Your vehicle donation program vendor shouldn’t ask you to risk your pledge drive success for the benefit of car donations; your vendor should help you find this kind of win-win solution so your station can achieve optimal success all around.

Car Talk Vehicle Donation Service’s Business Development Director Twyla Olson is looking for a few stations to test Jay’s great idea! Interested? Drop her a note.

1. Not really, of course. We know it just feels that way, some days.