• Marsha Allen, Advisor Lance Lucas & Associates

Enhancing Donor Relations Through "Donor Engagement"


Donor Relations is the process of thoughtfully and proactively cultivating relationships with new donors and stewarding current donors in order to maximize philanthropic investment, donor retention and engagement. A donor relations program is commonly thought to encompass four elements, (1) policies for gift acceptance and management, (2) procedures for gift receipting and acknowledgment, (3) protocols for donor recognition, and (4) quantitative and qualitative fund reporting. When done well, these elements strengthen the donor’s commitment to your institution and mission.

Developing Your Donor Engagement Strategy

The following discussion provides insight into the third element – donor recognition. I submit that a comprehensive donor engagement strategy is a crucial component of effective donor recognition. Developing your strategy requires careful thought and planning, with a focus on the donor, not just the gift. A well-managed donor engagement strategy will involve a variety of action items that span throughout your institution’s operating cycle. These action items aim for positive interaction with every segment of your donor population. Ultimately, your donor engagement strategy should strengthen the relationship between the donor and your institution or organization.

Step 1: Planning Your Donor Engagement Strategy

  • ensure that the plan is scaled to your institution/organization and budget

  • segment donors, usually by giving levels

  • gather donor information to plan engagement activities and track preferences

  • provide opportunities for donor recognition ( gift society membership, recognition program and appreciation events, etc.)

  • establish and maintain frequent channels of communication with donors of all sizes (newsletters and publications, emails and social media, stewardship reports, holiday cards, etc.)

  • develop individual stewardship plans for major donors (requires a great deal of personalization and staff attention)

  • gather and incorporate feedback from donors through personal visits and stewardship surveys

Step 2: Who is Responsible?

Responsibility for executing a donor engagement plan is driven by your institutional or organizational structure. There is more specialization in larger institutions/organizations, whereas donor relations responsibilities in small institutions/organizations tend to be in “one stop” shops. Wherever the donor relations function is placed, an absolutely essential factor in implementing your donor engagement strategy is the partnering of donor relations with development disciplines such as the annual fund, major giving, planned giving, and prospect research. It is also important that donor relation staff collaborate with colleagues in the operational, financial, and communications areas to ensure that you put your best face forward to the donor.

Step 3: How are you Managing your Action Items?

You must have systems in place to support the management of donor engagement activities. Use available technology and/or your database to record and retrieve information about your donors (giving history and patterns, contact information, interest, preferences, event attendance, etc.). I recommend that you develop tools to monitor donor engagement action items. Data programs, donor engagement charts, and individual stewardship plans can be specially design to meet your specific needs. A moves management system is especially helpful in tracking activities for your major donors. I also encourage you to have regular meetings to review your plan, detail action items, assign tasks and document progress.

Suggested Action Items

Here are just a few many action items and activities that can be included in your donor engagement strategy. They can be managed through a stewardship chart or loaded into a system that you design. Some may have moves associated with the activity that can be entered into your moves management system, calendar or whatever tracking device you create.

  • Mass communication pieces — newsletters, publications, emails, holiday cards, etc.

  • “You make a difference” (YMAD) pieces

  • Personal notes

  • Stewardship Reports

  • Thank you calls — segmented audiences

  • Recognition and Appreciation Events

  • Cultivation (personal) Visits

  • Site Visits Cultivation

  • Donor Listings

  • Tokens and Gifts


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