For years, public broadcasting stations have successfully marketed sustaining memberships to their listeners and viewers — and now other nonprofits are catching on. Properly designed and implemented, a sustainer program (also known as a “monthly” or “preauthorized” giving program) can provide an organization with a strong, predictable income stream, raise its public profile and increase donor loyalty. However, nonprofits that decide to adopt the sustainer model must take the long view.

How they work

Sustainer programs enable supporters to make periodic (usually monthly or quarterly), automatic donations. Donors provide bank account or credit card information and are billed regularly for an agreed-upon amount, such as $10 or $25. In return for their long-term commitment donors usually receive sustainer program memberships, whose benefits might include invitations to members-only events or reduced-price entrance to fundraisers.

Nonprofits with successful sustainer programs can reap impressive benefits. According to research organization Target Analytics, monthly sustainers give significantly more per year than single-gift donors. For example, in 2012, the average revenue per sustaining donor for public radio and public television was about 9% higher than the average for all other public broadcasting donors. Sustainers averaged $151 per radio donor and $135 per television donor.

Sustainers also show higher retention rates and are more likely than not to continue as sustainers when they renew each year. Twin Cities Public Television tracked 1,182 new members it acquired during the station’s December 2011 pledge drive. Of these, 936 gave one-time gifts and 246 joined as sustainers. A year later, 529 of the new members renewed: 34% of the single-gifters and a whopping 87% of the sustaining donors.

Administrative challenges

Although sustainer programs make regular giving easy and convenient for supporters, they can be challenging for nonprofits to administer. Be prepared to pour time and resources into building your sustainer program’s “back end,” including a system to capture donor information, process payments and run regular performance and trend reports. Many nonprofits — particularly smaller organizations — outsource this function to companies that specialize in fundraising software.

The public face of your program requires just as much attention. In addition to marketing your sustainer program, you’ll need to regularly thank, reward and update supporters. A members-only newsletter can be particularly useful in instilling a sense of ownership and keeping sustaining supporters in the loop.

Long-term view

At a past nonprofits conference, Nicola Bach of software provider Blackbaud touted the benefits of sustainer programs, but also warned nonprofits to look beyond short-term results and traditional fundraising yardsticks such as annual net revenue. Your organization shouldn’t perform a trial run, planning to ditch your sustainer program if it doesn’t produce an immediate or dramatic increase in donations.

Instead, thoroughly research this fundraising model and decide whether it makes sense given your nonprofit’s mission, financial and human resources, and pool of prospective sustaining donors. You might not realize the highest net per donor relative to fundraising cost in the first year of your sustainer program — but that should be your long-term goal. Make sure staff members understand how sustainer programs differ from traditional fundraising models and that you have their buy-in.

Look at the numbers

Administering a sustainer program can be costly — and there are no guarantees it’ll be successful. So your nonprofit’s executives and board should carefully consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of adopting this fundraising model. Your accounting advisors can help by reviewing current numbers and projecting potential costs and income.