Multiply Your Impact: Enlist Key Donors to Create a Meaningful Stewardship Plan

By Wendy Hatch, CFRE, Vice President and JoAnn Yoshimoto, CFRE, Senior Consultant

Don’t we all agree that the most precious things in life are worthy of our best attention, effort and care? In the fundraising world, the most precious “things” are our donors and their philanthropic dollars.

Who among us has the luxury of a daily schedule that is just waiting to be filled with new ideas and activities? Nobody that we know! So let’s take 15 minutes – only one percent of our day – to ponder ways to work smarter and multiply the impact of our efforts, and benefit the most precious “things” – our donors!

How do you make sure that your donor stewardship is intentional, timely and effective? You need to plan for it! Wonderful ideas for individual stewardship activities, timelines and plans abound on the internet, so we aren’t going to reiterate them here. The idea we are offering is a strategy for multiplying the impact of your stewardship planning process by also using it as an engagement opportunity for key donors, staff and board members.

But First, Why Stewardship?

The first and most genuine reason to invest time and effort in stewardship is to express gratitude to your donors. Just imagine where your mission would be without their support!

Meaningful stewardship should be approached as strategically as our fundraising efforts. It shouldn’t be an afterthought, or a series of seemingly disconnected activities. And it definitely shouldn’t be overlooked because we get too busy.

  • “Strategic” means being of great importance within an integrated whole or to a planned effect.
  • “Stewardship” is the conducting, supervising or managing of something, especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.

Good stewardship demonstrates to donors the difference their investment makes in the lives of those you serve and how much you value their commitment to your organization.

Good stewardship develops deeper relationships. A donor with a strong relationship will retain a high level of warmth toward your institution and is more likely to give more frequent and/or make larger gifts and to maintain the relationship for a longer period of time. Investment in stewardship is an important component of sustainable fundraising efforts.

Beyond “thank you” there are many vitally important reasons to devote effort and resources to stewardship, especially the following three considerations: Good stewardship:

  • Improve donor retention. According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project started in 2006 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute –– the overall donor retention rate has been declining every year since 2013. There are many reasons why donor retention is important – but one of the most significant considerations is that it costs less in terms of dollars and time to retain the donors you already have than to acquire new ones.
  • Inspire donors to upgrade their level of support. Most donors typically make their first gift at a relatively modest level, to “test the waters” of the organization. Good donor stewardship from day one results in increased giving over time.
  • Motivate donors to recruit new donors. Yes, they help you meet your acquisition goals! It’s almost too good to be true, but with one set of actions you can accomplish two ends. If you keep your donors informed and inspired, they won’t be able to resist the urge to tell their friends about the impact that they (and your organization) make in the community. You convey appreciation to your donors and keep them informed, and they help to bring new donors to the organization. Who would not want to do this?

Engaging Key Donors to Help Build a Stewardship Plan

We’re always looking for ways to deepen relationships with key donors, board members, staff members and others. Consider using your stewardship planning process as an opportunity to further inform, engage, and deepen relationships with these targeted constituents. In essence, you will be engaging them as they help create stewardship strategies for other donors, thereby multiplying your impact!

Implementing the following five ideas will result in a stronger, more meaningful stewardship program, while also providing opportunities to engage selected board members, staff members and donors in the work of your organization.

Engage your staff, key donors, and board members to:

#1 Survey Your Donors

Surveys provide an opportunity to actively engage your donors, augment the demographic information you have on them, and learn what motivates them to support you. Survey Monkey provides samples of questions to consider when preparing a donor survey, but be sure and include questions about stewardship: how do donors prefer to receive information, what types of information are of interest to them, how frequently do they wish to hear from you, etc.  Enlist the guidance of selected donors – a survey task group – to create the donor survey. Test the survey with another group of selected donors, and then send the survey to all donors and friends.

By employing a survey task group you end up with a well-designed donor survey to implement AND have more deeply engaged the task force, survey test group, and all donors who take the survey!

#2 Identify Your Impact

What donors really want to hear – besides “thank you” – is assurance of the positive impact their donation has on the community that you serve. In order to tell the strongest possible story, you should gather data, information and stories from those on the front line. Convene small groups of program and other staff members as well as board members to help identify the impact of your organization’s work. Introduce the concepts of stewardship, outline its importance to donor engagement, retention, and upgrading. Underscore the important role they can all play in garnering financial support for the organization and thanking donors for their commitment. Ask them to consider their work and provide you with information that describes the impact and outcome of their efforts. Encourage creative responses – “softer” outcomes such as shifts in attitude – as well as standard measurable results.

By enlisting staff and board members, you are able to gather important impact and outcomes information to share with donors AND you have educated and engaged program staff and your board in the work of fundraising. In addition, you have identified creative thinkers, good story tellers, and others to invite to participate directly in future donor cultivation and stewardship.

#3 Develop Stewardship Opportunities

As mentioned earlier, you can find hundreds of stewardship ideas on the Internet: thank you letters, phone calls, and videos; impact statements; donor newsletters; personal visits; appreciation events; and so on. But there may be other opportunities that the development team hasn’t yet considered. Host brown bag lunches or other gatherings of small groups of board members, volunteers, staff, donors and others (either as discrete or combined work groups) to brainstorm stewardship opportunities within your organization. They may surprise you with the new and creative ideas they develop!

The end product is a menu of stewardship activities AND you have more deeply engaged work group participants and likely discovered additional interests and talents that can be utilized in other ways.

#4 Participate in Stewardship Activities

With strong impact information in hand and a menu of stewardship opportunities for various audiences, invite your newly-identified creative thinkers and great storytellers to join you in implementing selected stewardship activities throughout the year.

The end product is a team of ambassadors standing ready to help you demonstrate the impact of the investment your donors have made in your organization, AND you have a number of individuals who are highly engaged in your organization, fully understand the impact of donor dollars, and are willing to openly share their commitment to the organization.

Hopefully some board members will engage more deeply with the organization through the activities discussed earlier. However, all board members should participate in stewardship activities at some level. Discuss the concept of stewardship at board meetings; add a stewardship goal to each board member’s annual engagement plan (i.e. six thank you calls per quarter; accompany the development director on one personal stewardship visit per quarter, etc.). Additionally, encourage and facilitate opportunities for your CEO/ED and other executive staff to participate in occasional stewardship activities.

The end product of these deeper activities is board members and executive staff who help to implement the stewardship plan AND individuals who better understand the importance of stewardship to a sustainable fundraising program.

#5 Evaluate Results

On the surface, evaluating results of your stewardship activities might appear to be a development department activity. However, there are several ways to engage others in the evaluation process. Ask for feedback from everyone on the stewardship “team” – those involved in creating the donor survey, identifying the impact of gifts to your organization, and brainstorming and implementing stewardship opportunities. Did they enjoy the process? Do they have any ideas for improvement?

The end product is a more robust and meaningful stewardship program AND an increased number of donors, board members and staff members who have a deeper relationship with the fundraising/stewardship process and your organization.

Final Thoughts

A typical stewardship plan – even a good one – can feel “formulaic” to a donor over time. Thank you letter, quarterly newsletters, annual report, ho hum. Even at the major gifts level, a long-term donor will quickly see the pattern: Annual phone call from a Board member, lunch date with the development officer, invitation to the donor appreciation event. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But by tapping key donors, board members and staff members for their ideas, their creativity, and their involvement – periodically and strategically – you will have a stewardship strategy that is fresh, meaningful and more authentic AND you will have engaged more people in the fascinating and satisfying work of fund development.

Now that is multiplying your impact!

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