What is stewardship, and why does it matter to donor development at all stages of the donor journey? At the Bridge Conference earlier this month, I partnered with colleague Mary Getz, integrated marketing strategy & technology consultant, and client Jessica Cassidy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to explore how to integrate stewardship into donor development programs. Our belief is that stewardship is as much a responsibility at the grassroots level as it is at higher levels of engagement. Stewardship should be liberated from the silo of a development function, and in the process, can be supported by direct response strategies.

While stewardship has a traditional definition focused on managing the donor’s wishes about the use of a contribution, we define stewardship as a non-transactional communication that recognizes a donor and their gift, seeks to share information that is meaningful to the donor, and strives to create a feedback loop between the organization and the donor.

The Must-Do’s

When it comes to stewarding donors, gratitude and feedback are the foundation. Simply put, any stewardship program should, at minimum, provide timely thanks and acknowledgement of a gift, ideally through the same channel the donor used to make the gift. Personalize your communication with the donor’s name at the very least and acknowledge the gift’s purpose and intent. In addition, create a feedback loop with the donor by reporting what their gift accomplished using quantifiable terms—and when possible, focus on how lives were improved (people, cats, birds, wildlife). Reporting is a great opportunity to use storytelling to illustrate who (or what) benefits from the donor’s generosity.

Making the Case… and the Time… to Steward

While thanking and reporting are the bare minimum requirements of stewardship, taking the time to go further offers a tremendous return on investment. But as fundraisers, we are often so busy trying to meet immediate deadlines and goals that we push additional stewardship to the side.
Since lack of time and other resources are usually why fundraisers defer stewardship, it’s critical to make a case for prioritizing stewardship to your leadership. We’ve found that tying cultivation and stewardship to metrics of success—such as revenue, donor retention, gift upgrades, increased revenue—is effective in helping to move organizational leadership to invest in stewardship.

Keep in mind that stewardship metrics are also long-haul metrics; not all fruits of your labor will be seen right away.

That’s why you should be sure to set up your program to track the giving and the engagement behaviors of stewarded donors, and regularly report back to leadership.

  • Short Term: Engagement Metrics > Opens > Connects > Views
  • Medium Term: Retention > Upgrades
  • Long Term: Increase LTV (Life Time Value) > Bequest Intentions

Building Your Journey

Most organizations have the basic components of a stewardship journey already in place. You probably have an online welcome series and a welcome package for the mail. Whether you work as a gift officer or a direct response professional, you have a content and solicitation schedule mapped out for your portfolio or file, and your organization’s communications, program and/or events teams have their own schedules as well. It’s likely that some or all your donors are slated to receive some (or all!) of these communications. Do you have a single view of what that communications flow and cadence looks like?

If not, you are not alone! Most organizations don’t have a complex, integrated communications calendar with a single view of a constituent journey—not to mention variations by audience or segment. But don’t let that overwhelm you and resist the urge to give up. Here are few steps to begin to integrate stewardship into your current programs:

    • Pilot!

Starting small is easier than making a change enterprise-wide. Choose a target audience and a timeframe to test adding stewardship to your donor communications.

    • Build as you go.

Start with a single version of a communications plan based on the elements you control. Pilot the process on the targeted audience, adjusting quarterly. For example, first focus on adding engagement and feedback opportunities for a particular donor segment; next quarter, try adding package enhancements to their planned mailings, and so on.

    • View stewardship as team sport.

Donors are important at all levels, regardless of how they are siloed. Find different ways to engage donors that lead to greater long-term value, retained gifts and planned gifts. Think about what internal resources you have to support stewardship, asking yourself who in your organization has an interest and who has shared goals. Once identified, work with your partners to create pathways for information sharing, which over time will help to create a comprehensive calendar of communications.

    • Set yourself up for success with benchmarking and measurement.

Once you have defined the audience and the timeframe for your pilot program, be sure to benchmark performance metrics like annual retention, average gift and annual giving for the group. Also look at engagement metrics such as click and open rates. Over time, improvement across these and other performance areas helps to prove the value of the program to the organization.

    • Let your donors be your guide.

Stewardship is all about giving the donor what they want and hearing from the donor about what they need. Make sure you are both soliciting their feedback and responding to it. That doesn’t mean that you should change your program or your processes based on a few donor complaints—but you should be prepared to find a solution for these donors. Donor feedback provides great insight when testing new messages, timing and channels.

    • Identify stewardship moments.

If you are stuck for ideas for engagement, below are some tried-and-true tips we’ve used across many programs:

      • Customize your confirmations, acknowledgments and donor welcome package/communications.
      • Enlist others on your team, volunteers or other staff to do an informal donor “thank-a-thon” every quarter or even every month. Also consider calling new donors to thank them and longer-term donors to find out more about why they support you.
      • Mail donor cards for birthdays, for milestones or for loyalty.
      • Plan for one person-to-person touchpoint (ideally, a call) for the core donors in programs annually; use email to create the feeling of personal interaction with donors.
      • Interview a donor each month for testimonials, profiles, etc.
      • Create a donor appreciation day on your website and social media properties.
      • Use video. Create a thank-you video, a donor-profile video, etc.

While there are best practices, there’s no one right way to steward donors. Our charge as fundraisers is to find ways to help organizations be more relevant and responsive to their donors. In this way, stewardship allows us to fulfill the promise donors make to organizations and creates opportunities to improve the way we, and our nonprofits, do our work.