Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/June 2014, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

IMAGINE YOU HAVE TAKEN A GREAT DEAL OF TIME to plan the perfect garden. You took into consideration climate, shading, usability, and so much more. You took great care to plant the seeds just so. Since you are a good researcher, you know your vegetables will begin to grow in six months.

Six months later when you visit your garden, there are no vegetables.

Too often I have seen organizations take such careful steps to get great donors on their prospect lists and forget all the care that is needed to make things grow. Th water and sunlight in relationship building with your donors is called stewardship. And just like with gardening, without stewardship, there will be nothing to make dinner with when you need it most.


I have come to think of relationship building in all aspects of fundraising as a balance between love and systems. The well planned and researched garden is absolutely necessary. A system in place for watering and maintenance is critical. However, without the somewhat intangible ingredients of love and care, results are mixed. Remember how we are told to talk to our plants? Now that is an exercise in love!


No matter the size of your organization and your operating budget, a few systems must be in place if you are serious about donor stewardship. These are absolute non-negotiables:

  • A great data tracking system

Many great databases exist out there to track information. Use one! The more information you can put into your database (in a logical and organized way), the better. Remember you will not always be the person in the fundraising role. Set yourself and those who come after you up for success.

It goes without saying that donations should be tracked meticulously. But also track in-person, email, and phone conversations. Use a bullet-point summary or “top-line notes” with links to full conversations, or include all the information if your database is capable. Some databases are set up to send out “ticklers” and other reminders for stewardship. Make technology your friend here—the larger you grow, the more important these types of technological shortcuts will become.

A good database is only as good as the person entering the data. Make sure there is a system in place as to who, how and when all data will be entered. Every person who uses the database needs the same training to ensure uniformity of data and, ultimately, usability for fundraising success.

  • Quarterly touches

At a bare minimum, all donors need a “personal touch” every quarter. This is not a generic newsletter, email forward, or blog. This is a personal call, voicemail, or email from the person responsible for stewardship. In these days of information overload, the personal touch is more important than ever. During times of important campaigns, weekly contact may be advisable.

As you can see in Figure 1 on the next page, quarterly touches are rarely one size fits all. In Q1, this staff member sent all the donors different videos/stories matched to their personal interests. In Q2, the touches were all the same, but the personal call allows room for relationship building and growth. Th running list column can be edited regularly to help you plan next steps.

Major Donor Tracking – Quarterly Contact Cheat Sheet
(very basic sheet)
Name Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Next steps (running list)
Terri Sent silly viral video of “green cats” Development director called to invite to party Executive director sent personal email update Plan Q4 ask
Tenzin Sent video about important congressional issue Development director called to invite to party Draft email update – ask for in-person meeting
Nikki Sent news article about their senator Development director called to invite to party Ask to volunteer
Amar Sent video of a campaign rally Development director called to invite to party Invited them to local group’s movie night Plan Q4 ask


  • Weekly maintenance
    Set up a system for checking in with your work and/or your team weekly. This could be as simple as reserving an hour of your work week for “major donor upkeep.” There are three basic check-ins necessary every week:
  1. Is anyone on my list due for a touch this week or shortly thereafter? This could simply be a calendar or spreadsheet you check or a data system you have set up.
  2. Were there any interesting things that happened that week (with our work or with the world) that would interest some of my donors? This kind of thoughtfulness and outreach take very little time but goes a long way in donor stewardship.
  3. Is there absolutely anything to add to the database that can help us with future relationship building? Any email correspondence or connections need to be entered right away. There is nothing worse than a stack of 100 emails in your “need to be entered” fie. Make time to clear the weeds!

Love: Trust Your Instincts

Getting to know your donors and building lasting relationships is more of an art form then a science. Stewardship feels similar to any type of relationship building. Some ideas to practicing this type of love are obvious when we stop thinking of donors as dollars and instead think of them as family.

Learn about your donors:

  • Get to know your donors like you would anyone entering your life. Find out their interests, and support them in their other endeavors. Your donors care about your mission. Just that alone means you share something in common. From there, many things can grow.
  • Remember to send them fun items too—successes from partner organizations, interesting news stories, or silly memes are all fair game in this day and age.
  • Remember the small things like birthdays, children, or any big event happening for them. Personal cards and well wishes are not just important for cultivation; they are the right thing to do as a fellow human.

Include donors in your work:

  • Seek their counsel when needed. We all like to be recognized for the gift we bring to the table. Anyone that loves your work enough to contribute significantly must also have other gift they would like to contribute.
  • Always make sure to include your donor base when you have something to celebrate. Your organization’s success is also their success. Thy have invested their resources to see your work thrive. Invite them to the celebratory dinner!
  • Also include them in your struggles. Self-reflection and growth are acts of love. We don’t always get things right, and sometimes we will fail. Admit where you went wrong and where you could have done better. Your donors will appreciate the thoughtfulness and honesty.

Technology: Great for Systems, Terrible for Love

In my 15 years as a development professional, I have watched technology in our field grow and explode. We now have data at our finger tips that allow us to target any demographic from our list with a personalized email at the drop of a hat. Links on our website can automatically update addresses and donor information. Our volunteers can now fundraise with Kickstarter-like campaigns that directly feed into our data systems. Facebook likes can be translated and analyzed to maximize donor outreach. It is a good time to be a tech-savvy development director.

Tech Based Solutions Worth Trying Now

  • “Pings,” “Ticklers,” and “Reminders”
    There are many calendars that send you reminders for events coming up. Some of these tools set up reminders in your calendar or send you text messages. Now, good databases can also analyze your data and give you a reminder too. For example, your database may be able to scan for people in your “major donor” or “VIP” category and ping you if you haven’t communicated with them in three months.
  • Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, and other email solutions
    Old school development directors remember bringing our lists to mail houses in order to supervise a letter merge. Now, we can digitize personal correspondence in seconds. Victories and touching stories are so easy to share. Take advantage of it. Also make sure to analyze your click through and open rates so you can keep sending out your best stuff
  • Volunteer Fundraising pages
    It has never been easier for your board members, VIPs, and community to fundraise on your behalf. Databases that provide this functionality also capture new prospects at great rates. Having a follow up plan to process and make sense of all the new email addresses is a must if you fully want to take advantage of this feature.
  • Petitions and “Crowd Sourcing”
    Many organizations struggle with new member acquisition—the ability to bring in a stream of new prospects in order to replace lapsed donors and grow the donor base. With online petitions and a variety of crowd sourcing options (i.e., Help us come up with a slogan! Give us your best idea! etc.), new names can come in fast for the digitally savvy.
  • Document Sharing
    The major leaps in online document sharing can really help build the fundraising culture of the entire team. Many donors are involved in other parts of the organization. Having an easy way for program staff to see what is going on with donors (and vice versa) can amplify your organization’s power to “love.” If not, everyone can access your database, a basic Google Drive set up can let your team check in on progress and alert you to important developments.


However, just as with your garden, you must use the right tool at the right time. Just because you have access to an industrial grade tiller does not mean you want to use it to pick out weeds from in between your greens.

Use technology appropriately. A few mail merge mix-ups and offended donors (“What, I just gave you $5,000! Why would you ask a week later?!”) will definitely help you course correct. However, if you start thinking of your tech as your “systems helper” and not as your “tool for love,” you may save yourself from some embarrassing communications. See Figure 2 above for tech-based solutions I’ve found helpful.

A Note on the Ask

Many great things have been written about conducting major donor campaigns and helping askers get over fears. To add an obvious point to these existing conversations, if you have been in charge of stewardship, you should be the one to ask, follow-up, track, and thank.

In addition, I see many people get lost in the particulars around asking for money. We spend so much time planning major donor campaigns and develop all sorts of materials to prepare our team to make an ask. Sometimes this amount of preparation can amount to procrastination and busy work. It is often unnecessary
to assemble a team of solicitors with major donor lists under 50. Just like your backyard garden, bringing in a dozen helpers would just trample up all the hard work you have been putting in. Sometimes the right tool for the ask is simply, well, simple: just ask.

Moving Forward with Love & Systems

Do not just leave your garden to chance. So much can happen in the course of the year that will leave your basket barren when it is time to fundraise. I believe in “love and systems.” I have watched great things grow when organizations are intentional and thorough with their stewardship. Plant your garden, and maintain its excellence. When it is time for the harvest, we can all feast and enjoy the reason we are all at the table: your mission and vision growing in the world.