David McMullen on Donor Relations and Stewardship

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David McMullen, Interim Director of Development, Director of Donor Relations, Catholic University of America

Though the idea of donor relations and stewardship is not new in the world of fundraising, it is a constantly evolving process and one that is consuming an increasing share of time and resources. We checked in with David McMullen at Catholic University of America to find out how donor relations factors in to the advancement program there, and what if any thing has changed in their approach in recent months or years.

WG: What have been the greatest changes in donor relations and stewardship at CUA in the past five years?

DM: Over the past five years or more, the biggest change in the program has been the incorporation of donor relations and stewardship as part of a holistic donor program.  Here at CUA, ”stewardship” is the process of stewarding a donor from beginning to end (i.e., receipt of the gift), and beyond. The reasoning is, to move the program forward donors must be thought of as more than just the source of a gift.  From the moment of discovery, during the process of involvement, and even after the gift is realized, institutions must always keep donors and their interests in sight.  The process of building a relationship with a donor never ends.

WG: How are donor relations and stewardship evolving at CUA?

DM: It’s always evolving. As we integrate more with the gift officers, it has become part of their mindset as well. Donor relations and stewardship doesn’t only come out of this office, it comes out of the whole department. I don’t ever see that it will stop evolving.

WG: What are your metrics for evaluating whether the program is effective?

DM: We don’t have formal metrics in place, but we are moving toward that. Right now, we measure our progress by seeing more gift activity coming from our donors.

WG: What would you describe as your “best practices” in the area of donor relations and stewardship?

DM: Communication is key. We are constantly letting them know they are still in our minds. We communicate every way that we possibly can: mail, phone, email, and web. We have really amped that up over the last 3 years. We use iModules, a provider of on-line alumni, giving and donor relations tools, that allows us to do a lot of reaching out, either to the community as a whole, or to individual donors. We have seen a huge increase in on-line giving. Last year there was a 267% increase. More traditional efforts, like sending donors at a benchmark gift level a copy of the donor report or the annual report with a cover letter, lets them know that the CUA community appreciates them every day.

But we’re very careful about overkill. Each of us is a consumer; we look at our own universities and how they communicate with us as individual consumers of information. We think about how often we want to hear from our alma mater. We are very careful; we know that when we send something out, our donors are not receiving anything else from CUA that day.

Developing relationships with colleagues and peers at the University is another practice that works very well for us.  Our efforts go well beyond the walls of the development office; deans, administrators, faculty and staff all play a role in engaging donors.

WG: What kind of guidance do you give to deans, administrators, and faculty so that they can be effective in building donor relationships? How do you monitor their involvement?

DM: That has been a real challenge for us. We don’t want people asking for a gift without us knowing. By creating relationships with the deans and some faculty, as well as with our athletic director, who is fantastic, we are able to talk with them about where they are in the spectrum and what their role might be. We like to include our deans when we are ready to make an ask; they understand that all of us are development officers.

WG: What types of events are donors invited to attend?

DM: Any time we do an event in development, we have a purpose. We do presidential dinners for groups of around 12 people. These would be people that are invited because they are at a level of giving where they should meet the president. We have an event called “CUA Today” for donors who give consistently at a certain level, or are ready be asked to give at a new level. We see increased giving as a result because they get an inside look at the university.

WG: What type of information do you collect about your donors?

DM: That is through Development Services. They collect everything from an address change to a new job. They put that into the database for us. This way, we keep up on everything that has happened with our donors.

WG: What lessons have you learned that you would share with those colleagues who are new to this area, and/or now developing a donor relations and stewardship program?

DM: Work with everyone in the office to teach the importance of donor relations and stewardship as essential to the growth of the program.  From every frontline colleague who answers the phone, to the development services staff who process gifts, all the way to the VP, we all play an important role in stewarding every gift. In the end, always remember to treat the donor the way you would want to be treated: with respect, thoughtfulness, and appreciation.


The Woolbright Group’s services include counsel in strategic planning, board development, leadership and team building, capacity building, training in effective fundraising and solicitation skills, and more. For more information, please contact us.

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