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Think Before You Thank

This past summer I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful country of Ireland. When my girlfriends invited me to join them for a portion of their European vacation, I leapt at the invitation. My friends were too busy backpacking Europe to have time to plan the details for Ireland, so I willingly took the reins to ensure we would get the most out of our trip. I planned everything – from our hotel, car rental, tours, hikes, etc. Throughout our vacation, my friends continuously thanked me because they realized that if we had not had a plan in place, we would not have been able to steward our time well and get the most out of our trip.

That leads me to ask this question: Do you have a plan in place when it comes to stewarding your donors? I do not simply mean a response to a gift or gift acknowledgement; I am referring to an ongoing, consistent and documented plan that you can change and add to as you get more familiar with what works and does not work well for your organization. It is important to have a tangible stewardship plan in place; otherwise, you may miss out on deepening relationships with your donors.

Building Relationships 

Relationship building is the lifeblood that keeps fundraising alive. Diminish the focus on building relationships and you might just find your organization beginning to flatline. It is a no-brainer then that donor stewardship should also be centered on relationship building. When this takes place, the natural results should include accelerated giving and donor retention. Kathryn Miree, an attorney specializing in major and planned gifts, states that very few nonprofits introduce stewardship in year one of fundraising, but she strongly believes they should. Stewardship (in addition to doing good work) is the number one factor that will play a powerful role on the consistency of a donor’s giving. If nonprofits plan on seeing success within their planned giving programs, relationship building will be key!

In order for nonprofits to thrive and keep their donors excited and engaged, developing a stewardship plan will be integral. A well-constructed and thought-out plan could mean all the difference in keeping that wave moving for your organization!

Identifying & Segmenting Your Donors

Before you set out to create a plan, you should begin to identify the various donor levels that exist within your donor list (i.e. loyal donors, recent donors, major donors, planned giving donors, etc.) By segmenting your donors, you will have a better picture of how to best steward each group in a meaningful and strategic way. Imagine a pyramid. This type of segmentation will also give you the opportunity to push donors to higher levels as you consistently steward each level of donors. Take a new donor for instance – we will call her Jane. Perhaps you begin reaching out to Jane with direct mail pieces. You then have the opportunity to invite Jane to an upcoming event on campus, and she decides to come. You finally get a face-to-face interaction, and you encourage her to sign up for your organization’s planned giving enewsletter where she can learn about all the wonderful things your organization is doing. Maybe a couple years down the road, after consistent relationship building and personal marketing touches, Jane decides to make a large gift. You will now move Jane up the pyramid and steward her according to the stewardship goals pertaining to major donors.

Every gift is appreciated, but due to limited stewardship resources, it makes sense that you steward the levels of donors differently. Patrice Cablayan, Associate Director of Gift Planning at Occidental College, shared her stewardship plan with us. Her plan segments Occidental’s donors based on the size of their donation. For instance, those who have given $1,000,000 will be stewarded differently than someone who has given $500,000. And as we transition into discussing the actual creation of a written plan, we will look in more detail at what Occidental College is doing with their stewardship plan.

Creating the Plan                                                                  

It is very important to begin devising a written plan. Emphasis on the “written.” Why should a plan be written? A written plan will help you track your communication with your donors and give you a clear picture of what is working and what might need some mending. This plan should include some type of schedule to ensure that appropriate follow-up happens after an event or a campaign. When activities and personal outreach are scheduled properly, you will be able to give ample communication to your donors without inundating them or completely evading them. As you begin to perfect your plan and see what works best, eventually you will get to the place where you are so familiar with the plan that you will be able to smoothly work through the plan and make stronger connections with your donors.

It is important to think through your plan and write it out so you can have a clear picture of the ways you will steward your donors throughout the year. Sometimes nonprofits will be reactive in the way they thank their donors instead of taking time to think before they thank. A written plan will help in providing a more thoughtful and strategic way of thanking your donors.




Referring to Patrice’s plan, you can see some of the stewardship activities on the left side, the varying stewardship levels to the right of the activities in blue (recognition, acknowledgement and stewardship) and the actions that should take place for the tiered donors. Patrice’s plan does a good job of giving donors a sense of membership. Each donor will be recognized, acknowledged and stewarded in a special way. As Patrice continues to faithfully steward her donors, she will continue to see giving increase.

Ideas for Stewardship

Once you begin formulating your plan, you will need plenty of ways to thank, acknowledge and communicate with your donors. Examples could consist of public recognition (perhaps at an annual event for your legacy society), new member welcome packets, handwritten cards, recognition gifts, events and fun outings, etc. Patrice introduced something unique to stewardship at Occidental College. She worked with Occidental’s 50 Year Club of volunteers and began connecting these folks with her legacy givers. Actively involving donors in a volunteer program is yet another way to increase a donor’s engagement, excitement and satisfaction with your organization.

As you begin coming up with your own ideas or reviewing what you already have in place, here are two ways to further personalize your communication and stewardship:


  1. Check to see if your thank you letter needs refreshing. If your letter begins with something along the lines of “On behalf of [nonprofit], we want to thank you for your most recent gift,” consider personalizing this. Write something that will capture the attention of your donors and make them feel like the most important person in the world.

  2. Include personal details in your notes, phone calls or outreach. Did Jane share with you at your recent event that her granddaughter had the bar exam coming up? Why not check in and ask how her granddaughter felt about the test. How did it go for her? Your donors will be thankful (and pleasantly surprised) that you would remember something like this.


One last thing to note is the importance of carving out a budget for stewardship. If you want to properly steward your donors (which will lead to more retention and greater giving down the road), it will be paramount for your leadership to support a budget for these types of activities and personal touches.

Do you have a stewardship plan in place? If not a plan, what steps are you taking toward stewarding your donors? What personal touches seem to resonate best with your donors? Feel free to share your findings with us!

I would like to leave you with this quote by author Penelope Burk, “Real recognition [thus stewardship] is not something you do at certain intervals in your relationship with donors, nor is it a momentary thing. It is pervasive. [Stewardship] is between the lines in the newsletters you write, it is in the tone of your voice, it is in the welcoming handshakes of the members of your board. [Stewardship] is inseparable from the people who give it.”

Bree Ermey

By Bree Ermey
Integrated Marketing - Southeast Region, Crescendo Interactive, Inc.

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