Stewardship covers the administration of charitable gifts and donor engagement. Every contribution, regardless of its size, and every donor should be well stewarded. This means that non-profit institutions and organizations must have a stewardship plan in place for thanking, communicating, and engaging donors. A well-conceived and effectively executed stewardship plan will positively impact your fundraising goals and ensure donor retention.

Everyone on the development team shares responsibility for stewardship. As a former fundraiser and donor relations director in higher education, I led a stewardship team in crafting donor stewardship strategies. We identified some prerequisites in fostering good stewardship that I’d like to share. One is buy in, your president and the leadership team of your institution must embrace their role in stewardship activities. It is also important that your strategies are compatible with the institution’s culture and capacity to deliver. Finally, the infrastructure of your institution must have the resources and technical capacity to support your strategies.

If you are just beginning to develop your stewardship plan, or you are taking another look at your current plan, here are some fundamentals and ideas to keep in mind.

I. Gift Acknowledgement – proactive stewardship ensures that your donors have a positive giving experience, one that fulfills their expectation of appreciation.

Gift Receipt

Every gift should be receipted immediately. Donors are disappointed when they have to wait for their gift receipt. Along with gift information (tax documentation), the receipt should include a message of thanks, because today’s trend is to mail the gift receipt separately, without an acknowledgement letter.

Expressing Thanks

How you thank your donors influences their entire giving experience. Donors are real people and they want to be thanked by a real person, the more personal the thanks the better. Your thank you can take the form of personalized or template letters, emails, phone calls, face to face visits and others expressions of gratitude. Don’t be afraid to be creative, your aim is to inspire future giving.

It is important that your thank you is proportionate to the gift. You wouldn’t ask a board member to write a handwritten note to someone who made a $50 gift. I recommend that you segment your donors by gift size and develop giving level tiers for thanking them.

Thank You Letters:

There’s a lot to consider when planning your thank you letter process. Your giving level tiers will help to determine the appropriate signer and type of letter. I recommend developing a grid (as simple as an excel spreadsheet) to chart your thank you letter process. Letters for the lower-tier donors are usually computer generated using various templates. Think of ways to give these letters a personal touch and change them annually. Your mid-tier and high-tier donors should receive personalized thank you letters that are relevant to the donor. You should also draft several templates for various gift designations. Keep letters brief, yet meaningful for the donor.

Personal Expressions of Appreciation

Your more generous donors deserve a personal expression of thanks, along with certain select groups (some suggestions below apply to educational institutions).

Phone calls – using this method of saying thank you is appreciated by most donors. The donor’s giving tier or relationship with the institution determines who should make and who should receive the phone call. High-tier donors would certainly be pleased to receive a thank you call from the president or the head of the development area. Students and the development team can conduct thank-a-thons to specific tier donors, and segmented groups such as first-time donors, consistent donors, new monthly donors, gift society members, etc. You can arrange for reunion volunteers to thank their classmates, and scholarship sponsors would be delighted to receive a call from their scholarship recipients.

Handwritten notes – a time honored method of expressing thanks. The stewardship team should decide the donors to receive thank you notes. Your high-tier donors would welcome a handwritten note from the president. In addition, mid-tier donors, consistent donors, first-time donors, and the institution’s more senior (age) donors would be delighted to receive personal notes from the president, senior team and development officers. This is also an option for project managers.

Emails – use email for a prompt thank you to select donors, especially when there is a backup with mailing thank you letters. The president, development officers, and project managers can email supporters promptly and personally. If your college conducts a student campaign, student donors can be thanked via email.

Face-to-Face Visits – when it comes to building relationships, there’s no substitute for actually meeting people in person. Personal visits offer an opportunity to make a positive impression by having representatives from your institution meet with select donors to express their gratitude. Your high-tier donors will appreciate knowing that their investment is valued. Requiring careful thought and timing, the vice president for development and the president will collaborate to decide which donors to visit - graduates, parents, friends, former trustees, and foundation and corporate officers. These visits can be planned around the president’s travel schedule making it possible to connect with supporters around the country. Others development leaders should be involved in thanking mid-tier donors through personal visits, especially with local donors.

II. Communicate and Show Impact - Frequent communication is an essential element in cultivating the relationship between your donors and the institution. When communicating, assure your donors that their support makes an impact in tangible ways, and their gift is being managed as they specified. It is satisfying for donors to connect the act of giving and the ultimate impact achieved.

Stewardship reports - a primary method of providing information on how your donor’s support is impacting the institution is through stewardship reports. Scholarship reports are particular well received. Donor Relations officers should take the lead in the reporting process to ensure that stewardship reports are informative and timely.

Project Updates - regularly touch base with your donors on the progress of projects they support by sending timely updates. A report that is personalized with an attached handwritten note, email updates, site visits, and photos are all appreciated. Keep the information relevant and personal for the donor.

Touch points - schedule regular touch points for select donors. Send birthday and holiday cards, and the institution’s magazine and newsletter with a handwritten note. Invite local donors to the institution for lunch or site visits. Provide opportunities for donors to hear directly from or meet with beneficiaries of their support. Notify them of invitations that are forthcoming with a phone call or email. Inform donors of seminars and speaker series that might interest them.

Individual stewardship plans –these personalize plans are develop for donors based on their giving history, involvement and financial capacity. Managed by fundraisers, these plans are designed to cultivate and further engage the donor.

Grant Reports – ensure the timeliness and preparation of activity/financial reports for corporate and foundation grants based on award guidelines.

To sum up, designing a stewardship program requires careful thought, resources, collaboration and imagination. However, it is certainly worth the effort because proactive stewardship promotes philanthropy and donor engagement. Is stewardship an afterthought for your institution? If so, that’s a big mistake. Since it is far more likely for a current donor to give again than a non-donor begin giving, it is important that your institution embrace donor stewardship. You have read that good stewardship occurs when your donors feel appreciated, informed and engaged. I encourage you to evaluate your institution’s stewardship techniques to ensure that your donors have a positive giving experience. Do your donors feel valued? Does your communication strategy emphasize impact? Are you keeping donors involved? If so, your efforts will reap the benefits of loyal donors who give again and again.

You may have noticed that missing from this discussion is an important element of stewardship. My next blog will examine techniques for providing donor recognition. Stay tune for tips on how to wow your donors.


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