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Donor Stewardship for Nonprofits – Obligation to Opportunity

Stop just “checking the box” for your nonprofit stewardship program and celebrate the riches a vibrant and creative program can bring you, your donors, and those you serve.

So often, I find that nonprofits view stewardship as an obligation, dare I say burden, to “check the box” of gratitude to donors. Send a thank you letter in 24 – 32 hours? Check. Send an annual report, where the donor will find their name noted in their respective giving level? Check. Invite them to a groundbreaking or building dedication? Check. Stewardship accomplished.

Scaffolding to Build Long-Term Donor Relations

While a “check list mindset” fulfills the obligation of stewardship, it doesn’t serve the donor or your mission optimally. In fact, it represents lost opportunity. To understand the immense opportunity a thoughtful, strategic nonprofit stewardship plan affords, consider stewardship as scaffolding that will help you build long-term, deep relations with your donors.

What might that scaffold look like? No surprise, once a donor makes that first gift, the scaffold base is set. Often, however, the first thing we do as fundraisers is “slot” that donor into the appropriate giving level. Perhaps they made a small, first-time gift to your annual appeal. Or they made a first-time leadership level gift to a special appeal. No doubt, giving levels are certainly one filter you may use to help develop a matrix of stewardship tactics for your donors.

Listen to Your Donors

However, I would suggest that to truly leverage the full opportunity of stewarding that gift is to consider a variety of factors or filters to guide your stewardship plan for that donor. For example, if a donor signals an interest in a particular area of your mission. That can be a powerful cue for you for future engagement and communication with them. Send notes updating them on special accomplishments made possible because of their gift. For example, one hospital who held a capital campaign to update their intensive care unit in 2019, sent notes out in 2020 to say to the donor to that campaign that they were “pandemic heroes” too, because there had been no greater need for the most expansive and up-to-date intensive care unit then during the pandemic. Mind you, the campaign that had made that unit possible had been held several years before that time. Donors had received thank you notes, etc. But, this was a rare and perfect opportunity to point to their generosity with a meaningful and heartfelt message of gratitude. Those kind of messages reinforce donors’ decisions to invest in your mission as a way to truly make a difference.

Unrestricted Donor Gift Acknowledgement

What about unrestricted donor gifts? That provides a powerful opportunity as well. For example, your leadership team and Board decided that the unrestricted gifts raised in 2021 should go to a unique need that surfaced because of the pandemic. Perhaps you decided to increase your scholarship funds to ensure greater diversity in your student body. Did your unrestricted gifts help bridge the year-end gap from “red” to “black” in your annual operating budget because of unanticipated loss of revenue related to the pandemic? Have you let your donors know that? No, I’m not talking about the thank you note you initially sent. I’m referring to a personalized communication that underscores that their gift – that they donated – made a discernible difference. General reference to “you matter,” “we couldn’t do it without you,” “your gift made the difference,” are all a dime a dozen for donors. By reaching out with specific information not only reinforces your gratitude to the donor, but helps them understand exactly how they did that, and also empowers them to champion your work.

Reaching Out to Past Donors

And reaching out doesn’t always have to be related to their most recent gift. When is the last time you called a donor just to say hello and to check in with them to see how they are doing? The last two years has provided the perfect opportunity to reach out for that kind of nurturing call.

Are there any opportunities to include some of your donors in any marketing research your organization may be planning? Today’s software offers you affordable access to meaningful and insightful research to help you gather input from your donors about key issues facing your organization. The only caveat that comes with this tactic is to ensure that the input you receive will be afforded the respect it deserves. Don’t ask them to participate if you have no intention of using the data in a meaningful way. More often than not, when a non-profit reaches out to a segment of their donors for input, they receive very positive feedback from donors – donors that are grateful that you care enough to seek out their views and not just their financial support.

Recognizing Long-Term Annual Donors

The data tells us that the best planned giving donor prospects have given you lower annual gifts over a longer period of time. Consider segmenting your annual giving donors by years they have given and create some way of recognizing them for their unfailing support through the years. A simple thank you luncheon can go a long way to offering your appreciation, deepening their loyalty, and giving you a chance to get to meet donors face-to-face – donors who you might not normally make a call to because they are in a “lower level” of gift giving.

Some cautionary notes. Don’t just send invites and entertain a few hundred guest for lunch. You’ll need to have your hospitality game on to make this effective. Be prepared to have name tags for your guests. Assign seats and ensure that representatives from your organization are seated at each table. That representative should know that their job is to make guests feel welcome, learn about their guests, and send reports to your team. Be strategic about your guest speaker. Perhaps an accomplished member of your alumni, a notable physician or professor, or a celebrity who shares a passion for your mission. The trick is to identify a speaker and topic that will be of general interest to your guests. And be sure to tie that speaker to your work AND to the donors.

As you can see, there are many possibilities. Great stewardship is the result of creative, thoughtful, and disciplined relationship building with your donors. If it’s just a check on your “to do” list, you’re throwing away some of the richest opportunities you have to solidify your donor relationships. Stewardship is never really done, but too often, it has never really begun.


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