This article was first published February 14, 2012.
Though the idea of donor relations and stewardship is not new in the world of fundraising, it is constantly evolving and consuming an increasing share of time and resources. We checked in with Erin Moyer, Executive Director of Stewardship and Gift & Donor Services at the University of Rochester to find out how donor relations factors in to the advancement program there, and how they have adjusted their approach in recent months or years.
WG: What have been the greatest changes in donor relations and stewardship at the University of Rochester in the past five years?
The biggest changes are two-fold. One, the University has been going through a multi-year process to centralize Advancement in order to build a program that is both meaningful and sustainable. Secondly, as to stewardship, we have created a meaningful program from the ground up, making engaging with donors in a variety of ways a priority. Five or six years ago, Advancement at the University was completely de-centralized with all the schools and units operating independently in terms of advancement and stewardship. We have many schools and units: School of Arts and Sciences, Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Eastman School of Music, Simon School of Business, Warner School of Education, School of Medicine and Dentistry and the School of Nursing, not to mention the Memorial Art Gallery. We pulled these resources, including staff together into a centrally administered program. Now, we provide leadership in terms of strategy across the University and it has helped us become one branded University.
Generally speaking, of course, and similar to many philanthropic organizations, the economy has been a major challenge and played a large role in our work of the past few years. At the time of the economic downturn, we were in the quiet phase of a $1.2 billion comprehensive campaign—we just announced the public phase this past October. So the past several years have been a critical time in terms of developing leadership for this campaign when many people did not feel they had the means to give. Our challenge has been to find ways to keep people engaged and interested in anticipation of returning or becoming donors when they are able.
WG: What are your metrics for evaluating whether the program is effective?
We look at whether donors continue to give and remain engaged after some level of giving or other engagement with the University. We feel it is important to get direct feedback from donors as to what is important to them and gain an understanding of what they expect from us. We benchmark against our peers in the profession. We evaluate our communications, but are still fairly young still in terms of being a central Advancement operation, so don’t yet have the long-term view other universities do.
WG: What would you describe as your “best practices” in the area of donor relations and stewardship?
There are several core areas. We evaluate our communications and activities from the donor’s point of view, through events, publications, or reporting on outcomes. We focus on showing donors the impact of their giving first hand. For example, when we do a capital project report, we understand that when someone has given a major or multi-million dollar gift for a building, they didn’t give just to build a building, they gave the gift to enhance the educational environment for our students. So it is important to convey to donors all the ways that their gift has impacted campus life, students, faculty and the community.
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 engage them?
We work very closely with our faculty and deans as we view their engagement as a fundamental part of stewardship. To some donors, hearing from deans and faculty is the most meaningful communication from the organization. It can be immensely gratifying for a faculty member to build a relationship with a donor that supports their work and equally as gratifying for a donor to see the direct benefit of their support, so we facilitate that whenever possible. We are all stewards of our donors, as well as stewards of the university. Our job is to help donor fulfill their philanthropic dreams, and we work hard to find what inspires them.
WG: What types of events are donors invited to attend?
First, let me clarify: my team is not responsible for organizing the event logistics. We do, however, collaborate with a top-notch donor relations and event team. Together, we do a variety of special dinner events, often with a keynote speaker who talks about the key issues of the day, or sometimes we have an entertainer. It depends on the type of atmosphere we are trying to create. We also hold regional events across the country as our alumni are geographically spread out. We try to bring the University to alumni and donors through faculty presentations or alumni gatherings. We do some larger events where we create opportunities for donors to hear from high profile people they may not otherwise have a chance to see or hear. We also have dinners where donors meet those who benefit from their generosity. We have a very active events program and the basis is finding meaningful engagement opportunities.
WG: What type of information do you collect about your donors and alumni?
We collect what we need to maintain an accurate giving record and help us understand their philanthropic interests. Largely, our data is biographical and transactional in nature, the kind of data you would expect your alma mater or a charity you support to have on you.
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?
As simple as it may sound, I’ve learned that the foundation of an advancement program is stewardship, it all starts there. Whether you are a data steward, a financial steward or relationship steward you were entrusted with a precious gift. Stewardship is for the long haul and not about the immediate transaction and I think it is important to remember that you are building a sustainable program. Don’t make promises you can’t keep or make grandiose plans you can’t keep up with. And, embrace knowing that there will always be something you don’t know or were not prepared for – the important thing is to build a program and a team with the right attitude and skills that no matter what comes your way you are prepared for it.