Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/June 2012, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
STEWARDSHIP OF A DONOR’S RELATIONSHIP to an organization can be defined in several ways. It involves communicating the organization’s accomplishments with the donor on a regular basis; taking judicious care in managing the donor’s contribution; and not least of all, making a donor feel good about their investment.
In short, stewardship is acknowledgment + accountability. Past articles in the Journal have emphasized the importance of researching strong prospects for major donors so you can focus your energy on building personal relationships. Your midlevel donors are the ones just below your top prospects. Your challenge is to cultivate or re-engage these mid-range donors and successfully steward continuously meaningful relationships with them so that they eventually become major donors with a long-term commitment. The following recommendations can help you get there and you will not require a large development staff to utilize any of the tools discussed here.
Organize Regular Briefing calls
Inviting supporters to a conference call or webinar about a recent action, a new program, or even a discussion on a topic of shared interest is an effective way to re-engage and steward donors. Only 15 out of 100 invitees may actually participate but that personal voice interaction with 15 mid-level donors for an entire hour is priceless. Plus, the invitees who could not participate in the call would still get a sense of what you are doing with their contributions.
Additionally, briefing calls can help you:
(a) identify donors who have a particular interest in a specific area of your work;
(b) communicate about your work and its impact to many supporters in a relatively quick and efficient way;
(c) build relationships between staff and donors and peer relationships among donors in an easy and informal forum; and
(d) solicit additional support in the future, should you choose to communicate your organization’s ongoing needs during the call.
Use What You Have In A Unique Way
Grassroots organizations generally do not have the financial or human resources needed to create program and marketing materials specifically targeted towards the different demographic groups in their membership or donor base. So, use what you have—newsletters, progress reports, photos, even a list of next steps—with a unique flare. If you hosted a special keynote speaker for an event, get them to sign some newsletters or photos that you can send to selected donors. Create and launch a widget—such as an eye-catching image or your organization’s take on a popular phrase—for an online marketing campaign that showcases something relevant to your work.
When the state of Georgia executed death row inmate Troy Davis last September, tens of thousands of Facebook users turned their profile photos black. No words were needed, and for those of us who campaigned to save his life, it was a moment of building community through our grief.
Connect Your Donors With Your Constituency
If your organization works to develop youth leadership, create a safe space where donors and members can interact with some of the young people in your program. They should be able to speak with each other and make a connection. If possible, invite your members and donors to observe the work you do on the ground and get them involved in actions, rallies, site visits, and research missions. If they are unable to attend in person, communicate your progress after the event.
Donors to Amnesty International consistently tell us that their most transformative experience of our work occurred when they actually met with human rights defenders and former prisoners of conscience and subjects of Amnesty’s campaigns.
Offer A Token Of Your Appreciation
If resources permit, send donors a token of your appreciation—such as, a candle, T-shirt, key chain, or even a shot glass—with your organization’s logo. You can decide whether all donors should get a keepsake or only those giving at a certain level and could potentially give more.
Project South—a movement-building organization based in the South—recently gave a branded jersey and shot glass to supporters who purchased their 25th anniversary celebration packages.
Find a Wow Factor
Fundraising expert Karen Osborne suggests that organizations come up with creative tokens of gratitude and unexpected accountability mechanisms. If a major donor is interested in art, send them a piece of artwork. If they have a strong interest in Japanese food and culture, present them with a sake set after an update/thank you meeting. Project South could send their 25th anniversary commemorative shot glasses to mid-level donors as a token of thanks and a solicitation for more. One highly effective way to communicate a program’s success is to have program participants themselves get involved in the stewardship.
Are You Stewarding Or Cultivating?
Stewardship has to begin relatively soon after a donor’s last gif and your acknowledgment of it. But you must demonstrate accountability and success before you solicit additional support.
In truth, the line between stewardship and cultivation is often blurred, as stewardship helps you deepen the relationship between your organization and its donor base. In stewarding, you are (subversively) articulating the need to either raise more funds for a particular program, or demonstrating the success of a completed program/campaign that has enabled the organization to move on to another exciting program. The broader goal of proper stewardship is to instill joy in your donors and make them proud to be members and supporters of the organization.
Who Should Take Responsibility for Stewardship
As with all aspects of personalized fundraising, the development staff have to prioritize efforts based on capacity. Stewardship is best led by staff or individuals directly connected to the work, but in other matters related to donor fundraising—cultivation, solicitation, and acknowledgment—you should involve volunteers and other active donors.
Assuring a donor that their support is making a difference is important at all levels of giving for your organization. Do donors continue to give if they are not informed about your accomplishments? Perhaps. They may continue to donate the same amount of money out of habit or because of a great personal relationship. Would they increase their giving without being able to see what their support has helped accomplish? Probably not.
It takes proper cultivation and stewardship to turn mid-level donors into larger donors and to make large donors even more involved and invested in your work.