The best donor stewardship programs are those where donor cultivation is built into all aspects of your organization, from how the phone is answered to the communications that are sent out. Of course, while the strongest stewardship is usually in person, you can’t do this with thousands of donors, so it’s crucial to have a process in place that means that you are able to offer different levels of stewardship to different groups, depending upon your own capacity and the group’s importance to the organization.

So what are the different parts of a strong stewardship strategy, and what are the methods you can adopt to cultivate better relationships with donors?  Here is some guidance on the key elements of a strong stewardship plan, and how you can go about putting everything in place.

Know your fundraising and stewardship goals

To steward effectively, you need to be clear on your fundraising and stewardship goals. Aside from just raising lots of money, your fundraising goals are likely to relate to donor recruitment, donor retention and increasing giving.  So how can your stewardship strategy lead to donors wanting to come on board, stay on board and to give more?

This of course will depend upon what motivates your donors. You absolutely need to know what makes your donors tick. While some of these reasons may be unique to your organization, in my experience, it often comes down to a few things:

  • Donors knowing that they can have an impact in an issue that they care about.
  • Donors feeling valued.
  • Donors knowing that their contribution is making a difference.
  • Donors feeling that the organization is not wasting their money on unnecessary expenditures.

Your donor stewardship efforts are likely to centre around one, or ideally, all of these things.  So how do you go about creating a plan that can do this?

Do your research

I’ve talked in the past about the importance of understanding donor motivations in relation to your Case for Support, but it is equally important in relation to the development of your stewardship strategy. By regularly consulting your donors, not only to understand their priorities but also to determine how they want to be communicated with, you can make sure that your stewardship activities are really aligned with what makes them feel valued, motivated and engaged.  So think about the different methods of reaching out, from meeting face to face as part of a consultation process, to disseminating an annual survey to all your donors and contacts.

Understand your donor data

What does your data tell you about your donors? What do they respond to? With a well-developed database, the ability to run the right reports and manage a strong segmentation strategy, your donor data can tell you how donors want to be communicated with, the kind of messaging that they like to see, the amounts that they like to give and how often they want to hear from you.

It can also tell you when your stewardship strategies are having an impact. For example, by changing or increasing the quantity of communications between asks to certain groups, are you finding that your response rates are improving? Or by sending better welcome packs to new donors, are you increasing the number of people who give for a second time? Try testing different methods, so that you can find the optimum level of stewardship to meet your donors’ needs.  Then you can refine your program based upon what you have learned.

This is the most crucial part of donor stewardship.  The best fundraising is donor-centred so that you can give donors what they need and so that you can maintain their trust. Doing what you say you will might include making sure that you communicate with them in the way that they have chosen, or just making sure you are not late for appointments.

Donors will often decide how effective you are in your programming based upon your behaviour with them, so by making sure that you keep your promises, not only will you build a better rapport, they are more likely to think that such efficiencies run throughout your organization.

Donors feeling valued, and valuable

Thanking all your donors for their donations is the least you should do in terms of donor cultivation. You probably already send thank you letters out to your donors after they have made a gift, but how promptly do they receive it?  Are they standard letters or are they more personalized to match what the donor has funded? How can you help your donor to visualize the difference that they are making through the gift and truly understand the value that they bring to the organization?  Can you send thank you notes, or video messages from the field, so that the thank you feels even more relevant to the donor?

Do you ever make thank you phone calls to certain donor groups?  Perhaps you can involve your board and program staff in these calls, not only so that you can increase your capacity and thankmore people, but also so that they too can become more engaged in donor communications and therefore feel the “warm and fuzzies” associated with philanthropy.

Download my free checklist to put together a great donor stewardship program

Public recognition

Public recognition is an excellent way to honour the contribution of your donor.  The types of public recognition range hugely, from naming buildings to including donor names on a website, and what you offer often depends upon the contribution that the donor has made.  What donors might be looking for will also vary, but it is good to have a range of options available for individual donors, corporate sponsors, groups and foundations. Whatever you decide to do, see how you can involve your donor in the design of the recognition opportunity so that they get the experience that they are looking for.

One word of caution: make sure you balance the recognition appropriately with the level of support that the donor wants to give. It can be very easy when a donor first comes on board to just say yes to whatever they want, but you could be at risk of seriously undervaluing the opportunity and, in many cases, you can’t offer the recognition twice.  For example, if someone wants to name a building in return for their donation, and someone comes along later offering more, it will be too late (for more information on valuation, specifically for corporate sponsorship, I recommend taking a look at the Sponsorship Collective’s blog for some fantastic guidance).

Demonstrate impact

I spoke in the previous post about the importance of monitoring and evaluating your outcomes so that you can prove that you are achieving your promised goals. So the next step is to demonstrate this impact to your donors.

Donors want to know how their donations are making a difference, a real and tangible difference. They want to see that their contributions are transformational in terms of impact.  By having a vision-driven Case for Support, that is working towards aspirational goals that no one can argue with in terms of their importance, and by demonstrating how you have met the needs outlined in the Case, you can show that your organization is relevant, important and essential to making the world a better place.

Aside from the more typical newsletters and annual reports, other ways in which you can show your donors that they are having an impact include providing stories in your thank you letters, that relate to the kind of support that they have given, or offering tours of your facilities so that donors can visualize the difference that they are making. As with the thank you videos, perhaps you can also send video updates from the field, so that donors can see the work that they are funding in action.

Donor involvement – taking it to the next level

Donor stewardship is also about taking your donors to the next level in terms of relationship and of course, donation.  In all communications you should be looking for the signs and the opportunities to demonstrate how you can increase support and engagement.

Wherever your donor fits in your donor pyramid, aside from the cultivation methods mentioned above, there are a number of ways in which they can become more involved. For example, asking them to become a volunteer in a way that suits their interests, position and personality e.g. joining a committee or organizing an event. Or you could ask them to be your advocate at events, helping you to extend your reach with other donors and build relationships to further your cause. Not only can this be flattering, it brings them more in touch with their own passion and commitment, therefore furthering the relationship with them too.

Have a schedule

Your donor stewardship techniques are likely to be multiple and multi-faceted, with different activities appealing to different types of donor.  They can be time intensive too, and requiring considerable effort at different times.

By scheduling all your activities appropriately, you can ensure that you don’t overwhelm your donor with information all at once, then leave them receiving nothing at other times..  You can ensure that you have the resources in place to make sure that follow up happens after an event or a particular campaign.  You can also build upon earlier messaging, by expanding on your story and your need therefore moving your donors towards the next ask and deepening their involvement further.

There is no doubt that proper stewardship gets results.  By understanding why it is so important, knowing what you need to run an effective program and by putting in place a variety of ways to cultivate stronger relationships, you can both strengthen your fundraising program and give your donors a wonderful experience that keeps them with you on your journey to make the world a better place.

Related links:

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

Developing a strong donor stewardship plan to increase giving and loyalty

Using events more strategically to engage donors

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