The Do’s and Don’ts of Donor Stewardship

Our team refers to three primary fundraising strategies:

1.    Ask (solicitation)

2.    Thank (acknowledgment and recognition)

3.    Engage (cultivation and stewardship)

While most organizations ask and thank (and ask and thank some more), not all organizations spend time engaging with donors outside the context of an ask.

While cultivation is the work that happens before an ask is made, stewardship is the work after a gift is given. Donor engagement is all about deepening relationships and building affinity. At the end of the day, donors want to know that their gift made an impact. Donor stewardship is the primary means of ensuring that your donors feel connected to the mission.

We hear from development professionals and chief executives all the time that their plates are full. There are just not enough hours in the day to get everything done. They focus on efficiency and do the best they can with the resources they have. The end result is often ask and thank, ask and thank, and so on.

Here’s a list that can help you find ways to bring donor stewardship strategies into your day-to-day fundraising operations.

  • Do – make a list of your top 25 donors from last fiscal year and top 25 donors cumulatively over time. Depending on the size of your donor base, you can create separate lists for individuals, corporations, and foundations, or you can combine them — whatever makes the most sense for your organization. Share these lists with your chief executive and your board. You should know every donor on the lists personally. If you don’t, start building those relationships today.
  • Do – engage your full board in donor stewardship, not just development committee members. Asking your board to be active relationship builders is far easier than asking them to be solicitors. They will appreciate not having to make an ask and you will appreciate having a broader base of connected donors.
  • Do – audit your development, marketing, and communications materials, both printed and electronic. How often are you asking, even if it’s a passive ask such as a pledge card inserted in your newsletter? How often are you thanking beyond the tax receipt letter? How often are you communicating your impact to donors outside the context of an ask?
  • Don’t – dismiss the power of donor stewardship because you have a small staff or are crunched for time. Donor stewardship practices aren’t just for universities and hospitals. Nonprofits of all sizes can implement communication practices that connect a donor’s interest to the impact of the work.
  • Don’t – let efficiency trump strategy. Is it faster to mail a stack of “Dear Friend” letters than to personalize each one? Sure. Is it easier to ask an admin to send thank you letters once a month? Maybe. Is it better for your overall development plan to allow efficiency to trump relationship-based strategies? Nope. Don’t get caught in that trap.
  • Don’t – make the conversation all about the organization. One of the best parts of donor stewardship is learning about the donor. What are their interests? Why is your mission important to them? What do they value and what needs in the community do they see as priorities? Approach the conversation as a dialogue, not a monologue. The donor will appreciate it and you will learn a great deal.

I facilitated a webinar for AFP of Central Ohio this week with a focus on board governance. Of course, your board members should also be your donors.

One participant said, “I still struggle with the right ‘strategies’ to engage board members meaningfully when time is limited and frankly, time is stretched and people feel overwhelmed.”

It’s an honest statement. Time is stretched and everyone is overwhelmed. We’ve been operating in pandemic mode for 15 months with some glimmers of hope but really no end in sight. It’s hard and everyone is doing their best.

I promise you, though, if you incorporate these donor stewardship dos and don’ts, it will be time well spent and you will see a significant return on your investment.

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