The Tale of a Successful Radiothon
I am writing this blog post on a Sunday morning, which is 17 hours after the 23rd annual WIBC Radiothon benefitting The Salvation Army Indiana Division ended. This important event provides a great deal of visibility for The Salvation Army in the community and promotes the mission, focus, programs and services The Salvation Army provides on an ongoing basis.
With respect to the annual WIBC FM Radio 93.1 Radiothon, this radio station has teamed up with The Salvation Army for 23 years. The activity is a two-day, on-air, fundraising campaign to help those in need. In 2017, it was presented by FastTrack Plumbing, Heating, Air Conditioning and Mechanical. The event began at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 1 and ran until 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2.
The broadcast was split between the lobby of Emmis Communications on Monument Circle and Sullivan’s Hardware in Indianapolis. The radiothon’s focus was to provide funds through a vehicle known as the Bread and Bed Club. Funds through this club underwrite food and a place to stay for the homeless, including women and children who are victims of domestic abuse.
In 2016, The Salvation Army in Indianapolis had more than 300,000 meals served and more than 128,000 safe nights of shelter funded through the radiothon. The financial goal for the 2017 radiothon was $250,000. In 2016, the goal was the same, and it was exceeded by approximately $4,500. The format consists of on-air radio talent and guests promoting the radiothon for 36 hours.
They encouraged callers to call in to make their pledges or come in and bring their gifts/pledges with them. There are 12 phones in a phone bank manned by volunteers who work different shifts. Prize packages are offered as incentives for pledges made. Donors typically give because of the cause and not the incentive.
In a typical year, the $250,000 goal is achieved in three parts. The first part is corporate sponsorships, which generated $120,000 in advance sales this year. Each hour on the air was sponsored by a company at either the $1,000, $2,500 or $5,000 level depending on time of day and number of listeners. There were 36 corporate sponsors secured in advance of this year’s radiothon.
Representatives of these companies were invited to attend their hour on the radio, be interviewed on-air to promote their company and charitable focus, plus bring volunteers to work Kroger’s phone bank. The radiothon always kicked off with “The Salvation Army Advisory Board Hour.” The advisory board, as a group, contributed at least $5,000, and the chair of the board, Dr. Jackie Clency, kicked off the radiothon along with The Salvation Army Divisional Commander Major Bob Webster.
In addition to the sponsorship revenue, a second piece of revenue came from selected individual donors who cared about The Salvation Army and made at least $2,500 gifts, because they were interested in food and shelter priorities. A third large source of revenue came from the callers that hear the radiothon and want to join the Bed and Bread Club. This stream of revenue is vital to maintaining the growth of Radiothon.
Many callers are loyal WIBC FM Radio listeners, and others hear about the radiothon and want to support it. If anyone participated in this event in the past, you can typically track the up and down cycle of revenue for the 36 hours. From my chair, it is always stressful, and I usually know when I believe we will achieve the goal before the radiothon ends.
An Unexpected Challenge
That said, thid year’s radiothon was different, as an unexpected roadblock was presented about a month before the radiothon was scheduled to kick off. We found out at a meeting, after every plan was set, that an Indiana University basketball game would be on WIBC during our the radiothon, and we would be off the radio for about 3.5 key hours. That represented at least $45,000 in revenue potentially lost, as we would have to shift radio programming during that time to the Internet. I did not know what the impact would be from this fateful decision.
The 36-hour radio format kicks off on a Friday, and the first day sets up for a furious second day. When radio personalities Pat Sullivan of Sullivan’s Hardware and Denny Smith of Financial Engines take to the airwaves, these wonderful and dedicated businessmen put their heart, soul and personal resources to see that the radiothon makes goal each year on WIBC.
The most critical time for the radiothon is between noon and 6 :00 p.m. on Saturday. The last six hours of the radiothon is to motivate callers to make larger gifts. At Sullivan’s Hardware, besides typical radio programming, there was the planned investments stage, lead by Don Steel, where children sang Christmas carols, bands performed and excitement filled the air. Between stage acts, everyone continually stared at the “Financial Engines” scoreboard.
During these 36 hours, I find myself either at Salvation Army Divisional Headquarters calling and researching prospects, Emmis Communications working the phone bank with others or at Sullivan’s, cultivating and advising on-air hosts to “bring it home.” Remember the $250,000 goal? We were ahead each hour by several thousand dollars, and I was feeling good until the Indiana University game came on the air. When we switched to the Internet, the phones died. I had somewhat prepared for this situation by having callers call prior to support the radiothon. When the game was over, I looked at the scoreboard. We were thousands behind.
Race to the Finish Line
As we finally got back on WIBC, I watched the hosts work very hard with fear in their eyes. I thought we probably would be at least $20,000 short of goal. On the outside, I was very tired and stressed. On the inside, I felt very sad, as we did everything to achieve success. All at once, donors began to make larger gifts. With 30 minutes to go, we were $20,000 short, then $10,000 short with 10 minutes to go.
The donors chipped away and with five minutes to go. Pat Sullivan and Denny Smith increased their personal pledges. We needed about $4,200 with two minutes to go when Todd Reiselman of Ed Martin Automotive, the sponsor for the last hour, came through with his pledge and with only 30 seconds to go. We ended radiothon with $250,750—$750 ahead of goal!
As a fundraising professional responsible for achieving financial goals, I cannot tell you how you feel when, because of others, the organization achieves success at the buzzer. I was happy for all the homeless who would get food and shelter. I was thrilled for The Salvation Army officers, staff and volunteers that put their heart and soul into this effort. I was grateful for the donors that came through for The Salvation Army.
Most of all, I was thankful and blessed at the spirit of Pat, Denny and Todd, who collectively willed victory through their personal generosity. Tears streamed down my face in the dark parking lot as I left the radiothon site. I felt relief and a reduction of stress. This is a hard business and not for everyone. You can plan perfectly but at the end of the day, elements are out of your control. It is all about the bottom line and final scoreboard. For those who direct these types of special events, you know exactly what I am talking about.
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-224-1029.