As you may know by now, I’m passionate about donor stewardship.  Someone who is equally passionate is my good friend and outstanding fundraiser, Bernie Forestell, who has kindly written this post on how we can all become better at stewardship in our own fundraising programs.

Over to you Bernie!


Activate your Stewardship GPS (Great Philanthropic Stewardship)

Seamlessly Help Donors Get from Here…to There.

A few years ago we decided to make the seven hour drive to New York City for a family vacation.

Since this would be our first time in NYC, my wife and I were a bit nervous about the road trip to the hotel in the heart of bustling Manhattan.

I love driving and I have a good sense of direction. Having studied the route in advance, I had a good idea of how to get where we were going.

The added benefit was the full day we got to spend together as a family. We chatted, made plans, stopped for a rest-stop picnic, listened to music, sang, the kids slept. We got to know each other a little bit better.

The GPS kept us on course, providing added insurance and assurance.


Great Philanthropic Stewardship – Fundraising GPS

Much has been written about donor stewardship.

Like the GPS we used on our trip, stewardship is a process that should run silently and effortlessly in the background of the donor journey.

With current fundraising software and systems, donor relationship management is so much easier from a technical point of view. Beneath the surface however, are the personal relationships fundraisers need to develop with their donors in order to make the trip interesting, worthwhile and rewarding.


The donor knows where she wants to go, it is the fundraisers job to help get her there.

Stewardship may include:

  • Invitations to events
  • Personal cards on birthdays and milestones
  • Newsletters and updates
  • Phone calls just to check in
  • Board member call
  • Random newspaper clippings

These are just a few examples of highly personal touches. They can all be managed by software, but it is up to us as fundraising professionals to turn a name on the database into someone who wants to go on a journey with our organization.

Let’s assume you have the tools at your disposal to manage thousands of names (suspects, prospects, donors).

Let’s also assume you are responsible for the stewardship of a group of highly engaged, motivated and capable donors.

How do you bridge the gap between the needs of the donors and the needs of the organization?

As difficult as this may be to believe, your job is not about your needs at all. The only bridge you need to build is between the donor and their philanthropic goals.

With Greater Philanthropic Stewardship properly engaged, the journey you are on together will naturally lead them to helping you.


New Ways to Define Donor Stewardship

  1. “Honest Interest”

Robert Dunbar says you can handle about 150 relationships. Within that group you can only manage 15-20 close ones.

Understanding and accepting this is imperative for the professional fundraiser. It is up to you to determine who is most likely to be interested in a journey with your organization.

Stewardship begins once you’ve gone through the process of identifying, qualifying, cultivating and soliciting the donor. However, you must remember these steps are from your point of view, the donor has their own journey in mind, based on their own set of deeply ingrained personal values.

Think about chartered bus tours. A week of traveling the European countryside gives the bus driver and tour guide an intimate opportunity to get to know sixty people.

By the time they reach their destination, the company is already getting set to promote the next tour based on what they’ve learned over the previous seven days and nights.

For relationships to blossom and grow, you have to be honestly interested in your donor.

Do you need to develop a donor stewardship strategy? Here’s my free template to help you.

  1. “Active Caring”

Have you ever taken a pet to the vet?

Our last dog would hop out of the car, off-leash and saunter right up to front desk wagging his tail and salivating for a tasty treat.

Every employee he met would scratch his ears, say his name, get down to his level and do their best to make him comfortable. They actively cared.

When donors come to your office, contact you by phone or interact with you in any way, you have to care about how they feel. They are in their own moment and when they reach out to you by phone, mail, email or in person, you have to stop what you’re doing and instantly put yourself at their side.

This means looking through their eyes, not yours.

Of course this is managed through your database, but when you adopt a Greater Philanthropic Stewardship mindset, you automatically put their needs before yours.

If you go back to the same vacation spot every year, you understand. You can travel almost anywhere in the world, but it’s something about the way you are treated that keeps you coming back.


  1. “Donor Cherishing”

Dr Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, spearheaded a twenty year research project on the relationship between money and happiness.

His study revealed that people who spend money on things are less happy (long-term) than people who spend their money on experiences (travel, exercise, art galleries).

When you concentrate on Donor Cherishing you are better prepared to provide an experience.

The stories you tell, the information you share, the way you speak – but more importantly, they way you listen…it all leads to a more positive donor experience.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” Ralph Waldo Emerson


Stewardship is also a journey, with the destination determined by the donor.

It is your job, as a professional fundraiser to show honest interest, actively care and cherish every gift.

You are simply the GPS, providing insurance and assurance along the way.


Bernie Forestell is a professional fundraiser, entrepreneur, writer, leader and speaker.

He enjoys helping other people reach their personal, professional and philanthropic goals.


Read more about donor stewardship here:

Developing a strong donor stewardship plan to increase giving and loyalty

Donor Stewardship Part 2: Preparing your organization to run the perfect donor stewardship program

Fundraising Frustrations: Some donor experiences to learn from

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