Dave Stephens Interview
Chief Development Officer
WCVO (The River)
Career Capsule: I graduated from Cedarville University with a degree in Audio Production/Broadcasting in 2009. For three years I worked for Cedarville in the Admissions office full-time and part-time at their radio network, The Path. I then took an entry-level fundraising position at The River. After 3 years at The River, I moved into leadership of the Fundraising team, and joined my departing boss part-time as a database developer for his consulting company, Giving Design. For the last 3 years, I’ve been serving on the leadership team at The River as the Chief Development Officer, while continuing to grow Giving Design and our network of clients around the country.
Dave, tell us what’s new at The River … news, changes, & what’s new with YOU… etc?
It’s been an exciting season at The River. We purchased a station in a nearby market right before COVID hit. As that region in Ohio opens up, we have been working hard to intentionally serve and grow in that area. We also launched a new Chaplain ministry right before COVID, and that could not have been better timed by God. The stories from our chaplain team over the past year have been incredible.
It has been a season of growth at The River. We recently hired Chad Bradley on Mid-Days and to head up our new podcast initiatives. We hired some new faces on our promotions team, and with launching the new station and chaplain ministry, we have a lot going on as an organization. And, I’m confident it’s just the beginning.
Personally, I welcomed my fourth child, Violet to the family this Spring. So, between Giving Design Consulting, family, and our small hobby farm, I’m definitely staying active when I’m not at the station.
Regarding fundraising, how has The River been affected by the pandemic?
We had been on a streak of 6 consecutive years of significant growth in fundraising. We were doing our Spring Sharathon in 2020 when Ohio started shutting down the state and people started panic-buying toilet paper. No matter what we did after that, nothing could get the phone to ring. We pulled the plug and canceled the rest of our event. I remember wondering what on earth we were going to do.
We came back in May with a short make-up event, and then the rest of the year turned out to be the best in history, beating our previous best year by 21%! 2020 made hope tangible to our listeners and they showed up in a huge way.
What is the best fundraising advice you’ve been given? The worst?
The Mission Increase Foundation has 10 core fundraising principles that I find are a great foundation for fundraising. I’ll share the first two. Principle 1: Every act of giving is first and foremost a statement about the faithfulness of God. Principle 2: Transformational giving is based on the abundance and trustworthiness of God, not a theology of scarcity.
Fundraising has to start with the fact that our ministry and our donors belong to God. He has all of the resources we need. The way we fundraise and the way we serve our donors must be as a ministry and service to God and to our donors. They are not just a tool for us to do our work.
This perspective takes the pressure off of me. Yes – I need to do it well, but it’s not about how well I craft my ask, but more about the impact of our whole ministry and whether God is calling that person to give.
The worst advice is, “If you just tell them the need, they’ll give.” Yes, that may work if you’re going on a mission trip and you ask Grandma. But overall, if that was true, we wouldn’t have poverty in the world. Yet, we try this method in different ways all over the place. People give to the results of your ministry, not because you tell them that music licenses and mortgages are expensive.
What are the biggest challenges in station fundraising?
Overall, we are some of the most spoiled fundraisers out there. Every other nonprofit would give anything to be able to just open a mic and talk to their donors whenever they feel like it. This method however, does create its own unique challenges. Station fundraising is generally a high-volume, low-dollar method of fundraising. This leads to challenges in serving donors well, especially as frequently stations have no staff, or only a few staff dedicated to fundraising.
Another unique challenge is that usually, the fundraising team has no idea who their donors are when the relationship begins. The listener calls in and gives, and their relationship is with the DJ, they don’t really care who the fundraising team is. This makes developing relationships and growing your supporters a unique challenge in radio fundraising.
In my consulting business I have found that frequently fundraising is viewed as a necessary evil. When that is the foundation of how your team views this vital piece of your ministry, you find that everywhere you turn there are roadblocks. You would be shocked how many listeners don’t even know we’re listener-supported stations because we avoid talking about it except during the events. If our fundraising events have to be education about our funding model vs. harvesting those waiting for the opportunity, it’s a real uphill battle.
You recently attended the Vidare Creative “Fundraising 21” conference, what were some of your biggest takeaways?
There was so much great content at the event it’s hard to pick just a few. That said, I love the reminder that fundraising is a 365-day process. That every aspect of our ministry and every member of our team are a part of the fundraising process. We have to be inviting our donors to be a part of something bigger than them vs. just asking them to give to what we’re doing.
Brian Curee and Lori Lewis both did sessions on digital/social media. I hadn’t heard the perspective that viral isn’t the goal – meaningful engagement is. A big audience of the wrong people is worse than a small audience of the right people. Are we building our tribes and helping our listeners and donors feel like they’re part of something? Or are we just building for the sake of building?
What trends do you see emerging in Christian Radio fundraising?
The big trend I’m seeing in radio specifically is what our friends at Vidare Creative have branded as Fundraising 365. The work of weaving fundraising into our ministries in a year-round capacity. We’re not talking about asking every day but making sure our funding model is built-into the fabric of our organizations.
The big trend I’m seeing in the nonprofit space in general is a focus on Legacy Giving. With the trillions (yes, TRILLIONS), in wealth expected to be handed down to the next generation over the coming years, and the fact that Americans in general are completely unprepared for it. The majority do not have a Will or Estate Plan. There is an urgency and focus from nonprofits trying to figure out this huge opportunity.
Some say more Christian stations in a market the better, do you agree with that, why or why not, & how does it affect fundraising?
It’s not a simple agree or disagree question. Each market has its unique challenges and differences. Competition can breed quality and drive improvement for an organization. It has the possibility of raising the standard for Christian radio in a city. It can also hopefully mean that more will find Christian radio. These are all good things. Competition can also directly impact a radio station’s bottom-line and force them to reduce their service to a community which is a bad thing.
That said, competition exists in every market and is getting more intense every year. Every one of our listeners now carries the internet in their purses and pants. We can’t focus on the competition. We need to focus on what we’re doing to super-serve our communities.
At The River we see ourselves as the welcome mat to Christianity for Central Ohio. It’s our job to make sure that every where they look in our community, they see The River and hear a message that there is hope to be found in a God who loves them. If we do that well, competition won’t be a problem.
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
My Great Uncle, Rev. Kim Jang-hwan (Billy Kim) – former president of Far East Broadcasting Korea.
Tom (Scott) Mathis – Formerly Pulse FM, currently Revive Our Hearts Ministries.
Jim Leightenheimer – Professor of Broadcasting at Cedarville.
Dan Baughman – President/CEO River Radio Ministries
Billy Kim’s radio ministry, broadcasting into places that had no other access to the Gospel taught me of the power of radio to reach people who may not be ready yet or never be able to step into a church. There are many in North Korea who are saved directly because of his work just south of the border.
Tom Mathis went beyond the promotions table to answer the questions of a curious little High School kid. He invited me to tour the station, to volunteer for a fundraiser and through his encouragement I pursued radio as a career.
Jim Leightenheimer doesn’t just teach. He invests in his students, develops them, connects them to his network of alumni. He coaches them based on their abilities and passions. He coached me out of broadcasting into a radio sales/management track, and then introduced me to The River. 3 Months later I was employed full-time there.
Dan Baughman believes in building his people. He doesn’t just burn through employees; he cares deeply about them, invests in them, and works to help them succeed in work and life. He also believes that our purpose isn’t to just serve Central Ohio but to serve the radio industry as a whole. It is through his encouragement that I’ve been able to give and share our processes and systems to stations around the country through my consulting work at Giving Design.
These 4 men are my radio heroes because each of them invests in ways that have no benefit to themselves. They have given of themselves selflessly in a way that has had a tremendous impact on my career and the careers and lives of others. They have helped me to see that radio isn’t about us but about who we serve and those who will serve after us.