Simone and I give regularly to public television. We have for years. Yet, we rarely watch it. And we are not alone in that seemingly contradictory behavior, I’ve learned.

There are lots of infrequent viewers who religiously support public television because they believe deeply in the public television mission and in the public television fight. Because it is a fight.

Public Broadcasting Service – PBS – talks about being “viewer-supported.” And that’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t cover everyone: for others like us, PBS is “true-believer-supported” television. We don’t give to public television because we watch it. We give because we believe in it. It matches our values.

Viewers Like YouWhich kinds of values?

The fact that conservatives in the US Congress have over the years trimmed federal funding of public television to almost nothing makes us angry, and proud of our contributions to PBS.

In that sense, our support of public television is a political statement. Simone and I believe that NON-commercial television is essential to a successful, progressive (vs. regressive) nation.

Almost all our larger gifts go to “social justice” organizations. We see public television as that kind of charity. And that’s just one way public television intersects with our personal values.

Public television is free. Every family, rich or poor, assuming they have a television, has exactly the same access to the same great children’s programming, to the same “most trusted” news reporting, to the same world-class arts performances, to the same remarkable documentaries.

So, we believe that public television is a force for good culturally as well as politically in our ever-evolving nation because it offers intelligent alternatives to the inanities and spectacles of commercial TV. It is not the servant of marketers.

On May 9, 1961, President Kennedy’s new FCC chair, Newton Minow, called out television’s chief executives at an industry conference. “I invite each of you,” he challenged them, “to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

On that day, a movement was born. And here we are, more than 50 years later, still supporting that movement.

It gets better.

When we give, not only are our values expressed, but it makes our brains’ hard-wiring happy.

See: evolution has programmed the human species to care for its young, according to biologists. Not only will we take care of our own young, we like to help anyone’s young. (They’re kids, for pity’s sake. Of course I’ll help, if I can, and assuming I trust your charity.)

Public television makes the credible claim that it is America’s largest preschool classroom. Generations of toddlers took their first bite of the knowledge apple thanks to research-based shows like Sesame Street. Therefore, public television is in full fact a major positive influence on brain development in the US.

I think there’s a good argument to be made that Governor Romney lost his bid for the presidency on October 3, 2012 during a debate, when he aggressively promised to “stop the subsidy to PBS” and named Big Bird, the Sesame Street icon, among his specific targets.

I suspect some reasonable people saw that as a shocking declaration of war against early childhood education. And I suspect many young voters who’d learned their A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s via Sesame Street saw Mr. Romney’s hard-nosed declaration as proof that this presidential candidate was dangerous to the public good.

Why PBS won’t receive a gift in our will: A cautionary tale

Because we are loyal donors, we are among public television’s very best candidates for a charitable bequest. We hit every major vector: we’re true believers, we’ll probably leave behind a healthy middle-class estate, and we have no heirs.

But PBS didn’t ask us for that legacy gift at the right time. So for us and for them, the “legacy” ship has probably sailed.

In general, wills are made or remade at three times in our lives, according to Richard Radcliffe (and others): in our late 30s, as we acquire children and assets; in our mid-to-late 60s, as we move out of the workforce into retirement; in our late 70s or early 80s, as we get our affairs in order, so we don’t leave a mess.

Simone and I just updated our will. It was a pain in the neck doing it. And it cost us several thousand dollars, so we won’t be doing that again soon.

Public television had made no memorable, recent request for legacy consideration. So it did not end up among our charitable beneficiaries.

Timing is everything in bequest marketing. An annual letter asking your best donors to please consider making a charitable gift in their wills is a minimum requirement.

The “Values” Pledge

You’ll be asking for donations soon this month, November, or December (maybe all three). As you prepare those appeals, consider adopting this profitable “end of year” resolution: The “Values” pledge:

“I will remember that donors give for their own reasons, not our charity’s reasons. Therefore, I will frequently remind my donors and prospects that they can express, through their support of us, those values they already hold most dear.”

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications Newsletter

Tom Ahern
Author of four books, Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on donor communications.
Tom Ahern

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