Unlike any other nonprofit organization, PBS stations have the capability to reach millions of people through broadcast television. Utilization of this unique ability enables them to tell their story and conduct on-air membership drives. Throughout the year, this practice, commonly called pledge, allows local viewers to make financial donations directly to the PBS station in their geographic area.
As a token of appreciation, most stations offer donors thank-you gifts designed to be an extension of a PBS program, providing the donor with an opportunity to stay connected long after the program has aired. As a service to stations, PBS researches which gifts are best suited for different audiences, saving stations time and money and preventing them from having to do the same research separately.
Research is an essential part of planning pledge drives. PBS stations generally look for times in the schedule that contrast the programming of the commercial networks. The majority of stations pledge three times a year — March, August (or September), and early December.
PBS acquires or, sometimes, commissions special programming to air on stations during the membership drives. Stations exercise complete control over which, if any, PBS programs they want to present during these periods. While much of the contributions generated through pledge are in response to programs that have been specifically designed for on-air fundraising; stations have also found success in fundraising around PBS's icon series such as American Experience, Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Masterpiece, Nature, NOVA, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and others. PBS provides a framework, including scripts, recorded breaks, taped rollins, and training and counsel for on-air drives, but the diversity among the stations and their individual needs mandate they establish their own schedules and priorities.
In addition to membership drives, each PBS station employs a variety of fundraising methods. By diversifying how they raise money, stations are able to cultivate long-term relationships with their donors and reach new audiences with their individual approaches.