The Critical Importance of Donor Stewardship to Continued Philanthropic Giving

When was the last time you asked your donors what they’re thinking? How about when you last asked them, one-to-one and not when you’re with them as part of a larger group, more about their philanthropic passions, their family, and their employment?

Not quite sure?

Well, I’ve got some good and some bad news.

The bad news is, not making donor stewardship a top priority for your fundraising team is likely costing your organization sustaining donors and potentially compromising the overall image of your organization.

However, the good news is twofold. First, you’re likely not alone. In the nonprofit world especially, it can be challenging to carve out time to really meaningfully nurture donor relationships when there are so many other pressing needs and challenges.

Second, you can start right now and create a donor stewardship process that will delight donors and keep them motivated to give.

Before you get ahead of yourself, start with the basics. One of the best ways to ensure your donors stay connected to your mission is to ensure that they are, in fact, still interested in your mission and that they are confident in the direction in which your organization is heading. Donor stewardship best practices include not just ensuring that your donors stay well informed in regards to the activities of your organization, but that they can also easily connect their philanthropic goals with the actual work being done.

You may think that because your donors got involved with you in the first place, that they think the same way and prioritize the same way that you do. But let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and poke some holes in that thought process with an example.  

Let’s say your organization provides baby boxes for first time mothers who have been identified to you as struggling to pay the bills. Your boxes include diapers, blankets and fitted sheets, onesies, pacifiers, and powdered formula. Now, let’s say your donor got involved with your organization during a natural disaster where more than the average number of women were in need of assistance. During that time, the baby boxes included things like a diapers, onesies, blankets, bottles, pacifiers, an assortment of toiletries, batteries, flashlights, non-perishable foods, and a first aid kit. You attracted a big, new donor who gave generously to the provision of the boxes during the disaster but has since backed off a little. You want them back, you want them back focusing on your mission without the emergency of a natural disaster, and you want them back at that high level of giving because it allows you to really fulfill your mission. What do you do?

Stewardship is what you do.

Call up your donor and ask to meet and check in. Really find out what makes that donor tick. As you chat, you may find that your donor is also a major donor to a worldwide dental care organization that is providing dental care to those who need it most. You might use that point of information to tell your donor that at that’s wonderful and so important and that, in fact, the pacifiers you include in your baby boxes are always those labeled as “orthodontic” because you too are interested in ensuring the dental health of the babies whose mothers are receiving the boxes – mothers who may be in a state of emergency, no disaster necessary, a fact you may point out as you chat.

At this point you may even take this a step further and see if your donor would be interested in including information in the boxes about how to seek help for dental issues and maybe even a short blurb to help new mother’s understand why you’ve selected to include “orthodontic” pacifiers only. Now your donor is connecting in their head your mission and another mission they’re passionate about. And this is just one insight you’ve only gained from this conversation. Your organization is now in a position to make friends with another non-profit who can help support your constituency and through this one conversation, you may have quite possibly reaffirmed your donor’s commitment to your mission.  

Taking the time to find out what’s on your donors’ minds helps them to focus on your mission and remind them of the reasons they got involved with you in the first place. That said, there are always donors who want to write a check and don’t want you to bother them. For those donors, make a note in your donor database to write to these people only and make sure when you do you make it as personal as possible while respecting their desire to keep their distance.

In these cases, it’s vital to remember that, even though you are respecting their desire for distance, they are still a donor who wants you to know them. They will be no less interested in having you be interested in their thoughts and their points of view and passions. You may consider interviewing these donors once a year to include in your annual report or in a donor advance. This ensures that they receive the attention they deserve for supporting a mission as important as yours. This sort of recognition shows your donor that you care about their personal involvement and you value their thoughts. This type of donor may also benefit from a house call once a year or so. If yours is a donor who would be open to a short purposeful house call, then be sure to set that up.

Let your donor know in advance that you were hoping to stop by their home and drop something off but that you don’t plan on taking up their time and you would like to visit when the time is right for them. For instance, if your organization sends out calendars or notecards with your annual appeal, you might arrange to drop off the items to your introverted donor and let them know you wish to do this so that you can thank them in person for the work they’ve done with your organization. If there’s any possible way to personalize the visit further by having the CEO or president write a note or provide something additional such as a plant or another small token of gratitude, that’s even better. For the Cadillac version, try getting your CEO or president to do the drop in themselves. Part of what you offer your donors is a channel directly to the head honchos. If you can provide that without them even asking, then all the better.

Remember after every interaction to make notes for yourself about donor’s preferences and thoughts. You’ll want to remember things about each donor so you can show them how much you care about their participation. Writing things down sometimes can reinforce information for us and if you’re lucky enough to have a huge amount of donors, you’ll want to make sure you can refresh your memory and ensure you can reveal, the next time you see a donor, that you were looking at notes you had from your last visit together and, seeing as you marked down that granny got some new knees, you wondered how old granny was doing with her new set of knees the surgeon gave her last June, it being November now.

Where you can, though, take the time to set up meetings with your donors. If you can’t take them all to lunch or coffee, then be sure your setting up sufficient open-house style events (ones they may even host for you,) to be sure you’re all staying connected to the mission. And when that won’t work either, make an excuse to stop by or ensure they’re receiving wide spread recognition another way like through quoting them in donor advances and interviewing them for articles about the mission and their role. It makes all the difference.