10 steps for effective donor stewardship


Initially, donors give to charitable organizations out of a passion and connection to their mission, to “give back” and support the community or maybe even to create a legacy. But today’s sophisticated and business-savvy donors often view gifts as investments in organizations whose missions and programs resonate with a donor’s interests.

Think of donors as investors. Just as you would closely nurture any shareholder of a company, the mission of donor stewardship is to build ongoing relationships with your major donors and to continually heighten their level of engagement with your cause.

The most effective stewardship starts now, before your donor has made his next gift. With an investment of time and resources, effective stewardship not only encourages continued giving, but can motivate donors to increase donations.

What do donors want? In Donor Centered Fundraising (2003), researcher Penelope Burk reported donors want three things from the organizations they support:

  • Prompt, personalized acknowledgment of their gifts.
  • Confirmation that their gifts have been put to work as intended.
  • Measurable results on their gifts at work prior to being asked for another contribution.
  • According to Burk, once these things are accomplished, donors will continue their support and increase their levels of giving.

Here are 10 keys to effective “shareholder centric” stewardship plans:

Send that ‘thank you’

An obvious way to thank a donor is to send a personalized letter (handwritten is best) within five business days after receipt of a gift. If it applies, be sure to also thank donors for their work for your organization.

Since donors usually expect solicitation phone calls, a “thank you” call is often appreciated and met with a positive response. Use these opportunities to communicate recent mission success stories and in turn you may gain invaluable feedback on your organization’s performance.

Recognize donors in multiple ways

Be creative with your recognition plans. While recognition pins, donor walls or honor rolls are commonly used, other ideas include: Listing donors (and volunteers) in the organization’s literature, such as brochures and programs.

Profiling an individual donor in a newsletter and annual report to share the inspiring story of what motivates him to provide ongoing support. Giving a special gift that reflects the donor’s personal interest and/or your cause. This may be more meaningful than a wall plaque and should always have a plate or engraving identifying the purpose of the recognition.

Hosting dinners and other events with awards for especially generous or long-term donors and hard-working volunteers.

Fulfill donor wishes

Major donors often focus on their money being well used and for the intended purpose of the gift. Any specific promises made to the donor must be fulfilled.

As donors have become more sophisticated in philanthropy, it is essential that organizations provide continuous updates via newsletters, formal stewardship reports, annual reports and internal or independent analysis on the results of their programs, including the number of people served and the specific needs met as a result of the donor’s contributions.

Highlight new concerns

Donors can be segmented and different messages or material can be developed based on a donor’s interests. The annual report can provide the overall and longer-term perspective on the organization, including future goals and past year accomplishments.

Show work in action

Offer a tour of your facilities so donors can see your program first-hand and the beneficiaries of their generosity. Have them participate in a hands-on activity with your organization’s clients, e.g. by volunteering to serve lunch at a soup kitchen or engaging with senior citizens during an art therapy class.

Show them the results

Develop a collection of personal success stories or testimonials from your programs. Communicate these stories through newsletters, annual reports, brochures, etc. and especially in the next donation request.

Foster communication

Remember, ongoing and frequent contact with donors is crucial to effective stewardship. Taking the time to send a personal note with information and articles of particular interest to that donor will strengthen your relationship. Use every contact with donors as a way to solicit feedback and respond to any questions they may have. Showing them you value their opinions as key stakeholders will deepen their connection to your mission.

Promote special access

Establish a point person in your organization whom donors call first when they have a question or concern. Allowing major contributors to have special access to you will make them feel part of the inner circle of your organization’s leadership. Some organizations, such as museums or performing arts centers, recognize donor contributions through discounted tickets or membership benefits.

Use technology

The Internet enables organizations to reach, communicate with and engage donors like never before. Blogs, specially-designed web pages, RSS feeds and social media provide multiple ways for donors to interact with their favorite charities. Gifts can be given in an instant, and letters and other communications can occur rapidly through website and emails.

Uploading photos to a website is a powerful way for donors to see their giving in action. Database and other technology enables organizations to understand a donor’s giving history and their interests in giving, which can be used to add greater personalization to communications.

Meet personally with donors

At its core, donor stewardship is about the human touch. A personal meeting is more effective than a mailing or telephone call when soliciting additional support, and often results in larger gifts.

Use the personal interaction to gauge responses and deal with any concerns. It is usually more difficult for the donor to refuse when the “ask” is made in person.