Telethons without TV: Why the internet is the future of broadcast fundraising

As totals raised by telethons continue to fall, what can charities learn from an online fundraiser in 2017?

Celebrities at Stand for Rights: A Benefit for the ACLU in 2017 (Photograph: Dana Edelson/ACLU via Getty Images)
Celebrities at Stand for Rights: A Benefit for the ACLU in 2017 (Photograph: Dana Edelson/ACLU via Getty Images)

When Donald Trump was inaugurated as US President in 2017, many Americans were looking for opportunities to channel their anger and frustration into positive action.

Among them was a group of TV producers who decided to use their expertise to stage a telethon fundraiser in aid of the American Civil Liberties Union.

They were well-connected in the TV industry and with A-list celebrities, but knew nothing about fundraising. So just four weeks before the event, they approached Fiona Pattison and her colleagues at the fundraising agency Open, which operates in the US and the UK.

The resulting event, Stand for Rights, was held on 31 March that year and hosted by the actor Tom Hanks. It raised £500,000 for the ACLU, was seen by 3.2 million people and was even nominated for an Emmy award.

But this event was not broadcast on television. It was streamed live on Facebook – and was the first major event to combine Facebook Live and Facebook Donate.

Over the past decade, the sums generated by the biggest traditional broadcast telethon events, while still substantial, have fallen as viewing habits have changed.

The rise of online streaming services and multiple screens in a household means people are less likely to sit down together at an appointed time and spend the whole evening watching the same single TV show.

Four years on from the ACLU telethon, and in the wake of a global pandemic that has left charities scrambling for ways to engage supporters in their own homes, Pattison thinks there are lessons charities can learn from the success – and challenges – of Stand for Rights.

One of the immediate challenges for the team was to build an audience on social media.

“It was really important that the audience were there, not just as viewers or donors, but as advocates to share the event beforehand and bring in viewers,” Pattison says.

When Open came on board, the fundraiser’s Facebook page had 1,000 likes; by the time the event began a few weeks later, the team had reached four million people with news of the event and attracted 26,000 likes to the page.

The decision to use Facebook Live was made because there wasn’t the time or resources available to run the telethon on national or even local TV, but in many ways that was liberating, Pattison says. The content didn’t have to be family-friendly, for a start, and the organisers had more control over the message and how they asked people to support the cause.

With a running time of three-and-a-half hours, the ACLU event was much shorter than traditional TV telethons. But on reflection, Pattison says, even this was too long, given that people’s attention spans tend to be shorter when watching on a phone, tablet or computer.

The event was simply an adapted version of the traditional telethon, with a mix of comedy and entertainment alongside serious appeal films to vary the tone and pace of the night.

Pattison says: “If I were to do it again, I would really challenge that format – we would want to make it shorter and more bitesize, and think about the on-demand way people consume TV and media now.”

Her advice for future events would be to give viewers more choice as to how and when they access the content, allowing them to curate their own evening.

But, she says, there can be real benefits to the sense of connection people get from all watching at the same time.

In fact, despite the involvement of Hollywood A-listers including Hanks and Tina Fey, user- generated content, such as viewers sharing photos of themselves dressed as the Statue of Liberty, got much higher engagement.

This message has become even clearer during events she’s seen online during Covid-19 lockdowns, says Pattison, with functions such as chat boxes and the idea of virtual or in-person watch parties proving popular.

Given that many watching will have access to a webcam and microphone, it would be fairly seamless to incorporate viewers into the event itself, she says.

“It’s a nice way for people to feel like it’s more interactive than just a one-way broadcast of information from the organisation to them.”

Equally, a shorter, more bitesize format and the accessibility of streaming technology mean telethons “don’t have to be these grand, all-consuming, expensive annual events”, and could be available to charities of any size.

“If we define a telethon as a combination of entertainment and fundraising via some kind of streaming channel, they can happen relatively quickly, at the time that is right for the charity and takes advantage of the public mood,” Pattison says.

And, she says, charities can test a format and then change it for the next time.

One contentious issue when working with fundraising on Facebook is that of data – unless the donor specifically opts in to sharing their data, it belongs to Facebook, not the charity.

Pattison estimates less than 50 per cent of supporters opted-in for the ACLU event, but says that, as charities move toward giving more control to their supporters, data shouldn’t be a dealbreaker.

Those donors are likely to be Facebook fans of the organisation, she points out – a charity may not have explicit data on them, but they are part of its Facebook community and will look out for its content again in the future.

“It is a bit of a leap of faith, but we have to stop saying to people they can only support the charity if it’s in a way that supports our internal processes and systems,” she says. “If people want to support you, let them.”

There is a tendency to think of telethons as one-off cash-donation events, Pattison says, but streamed events “can be an opportunity to deepen your relationship with existing audiences or to start a relationship with new ones”, so post-event comms are also vital.

Above all, she says: “Don’t make assumptions about who your audience is, and don’t feel constrained by who it might have been in the past or who you think would watch a telethon.

“You can almost think about who you want your audience to be and then go and find them.”

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