My favorite public radio station, WBUR, is finishing up a fund-raising drive today (we all hope), and this drive, as usual, featured a number of time-limited pitches spurred by "challenge grants."
"Loyal listeners have pledged $10,000 if we can match their donations [or reach a certain number of donations] by 1 p.m.," and so on, the employees say. (I paraphrase, of course; even I am not a committed enough listener to write down the patter word for word.) "We can only keep the $10,000 if we make that goal," the pitch goes on (though a few cautious announcers say instead that the challenge amount is "not guaranteed").
I remember vaguely thinking, years ago, that there was something odd about the challenge model for public broadcasting fundraising. Are those donors really the sort of people who'd withdraw their support unless it was matched? And why would they? Continuing support doesn't depend on reaching a certain make-or-break level of funding, the way making a movie or starting a business might. Unlike a Kickstarter project, no critical mass of money is necessary for the enterprise to proceed.
But I didn't give it serious thought till one recent season when, after I made my online donation, the station e-mailed me to ask if it could be bundled as part of a challenge grant. I was confused; "I don't want it back," I said. But of course I soon realized that the "challenge" was just a device to get listeners' attention, and the station's risk of forfeit was essentially zero.
Now the collective "challenge" has been institutionalized; if you make a sufficiently generous donation at the station's website, the screen asks you to check a box if you want your largess to be part of a challenge grant (with an assurance that you can have it back if the challenge fails).
This strategy still seems to me like a rhetorical mismatch. First it casts public radio donors as the kind of people who'll take their bucks and go home if other people don't play their game. Then it compromises the public radio brand, which relies so much on integrity, by asking employees to tell fibs. Or maybe I'm just a priggish literalist. But given their downside, I sure hope those "challenges" are getting good results.