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Essential Elements: Authentic Stewardship of Major Gifts
By Jennifer Weber, veteran major gifts fundraiser with Cornerstone Consulting.
Why is stewardship so important?
A successful stewardship program strengthens donor relationships at every giving level. Stewardship is more than simply thanking donors for their gifts; it’s a philosophy grounded in the desire to treat donors as partners in your work by honoring their generosity and demonstrating how their gifts make a difference.
How can stewardship help organizations achieve greater fundraising success in this economy?
Everyone is experiencing the effects of the economic downturn, including major donors. Many donors are making difficult choices and narrowing the list of organizations they will continue to support. How you steward your major donors could mean the difference between loyal giving and lapsed giving. Send them a strong message: We’re so grateful for your loyalty and ongoing support during these challenging times. They may not be able to upgrade their giving, but their commitment to your organization should be fully acknowledged. Find ways to value and appreciate your donors so that your organization stands out among their philanthropic priorities. When the economy turns around, which it is starting to do, giving will likely increase. Authentic stewardship is vital for sustaining and strengthening donor relationships.
What do you mean by “authentic stewardship”?
An authentic stewardship program for major gifts includes the following six elements, delivered with respect for the donor and genuine gratitude for the gift:
- A conversation before the gift is secured.
- A phone call within 48 hours of receiving the gift.
- A meaningful acknowledgement letter within five days of receiving the gift.
- Creative ways to show impact.
- Experiences of pure gratitude.
- Low-cost personal touches.
Let's take a closer look at each of these key elements. At the end of the article you'll find a checklist that you can easily keep on hand for future reference.
I. A conversation before the gift is secured.
In advance of securing a major gift, ask your prospective donors two questions:
- How can we steward your gift in the most meaningful way?
- What would that look like for you?
I'm not suggesting that this happen before every single $5K give. But I do think it's an important conversation to consider on a case-by-case basis depending on the individual donor, their history with your organization, and the gift size. Too often we make assumptions about what our donors want or what is meaningful for them when it comes to stewardship. Asking questions early in the process is about exploring with the donor what's meaningful to them: The donor may want a progress report or a chance to meet a program beneficiary to learn how their gift has made a difference. Or something else. Or nothing at all.
Having these conversations gives you a sense of who your donors are, what motivates their giving, and where they’d like more or less engagement. In the past, I've asked donors about the most memorable or meaningful stewardship experience they've had with an organization they support, and have heard some wonderful stories as a result.
II. A phone call within 48 hours of receiving a gift.
There is no substitute for an immediate, genuine, personal expression of thanks. Whether the call comes from the development officer, the CEO or a board member, a personal call to a major donor within 48 hours is essential. If your acknowledgement letter is delayed, the donor won’t be wondering if the gift was lost in the mail.
III. A personalized acknowledgement letter within five days.
Ideally, you will send the thank-you letter within 72 hours of receiving the gift, but I recognize that timely gift processing is a challenge for many organizations. If more than five days go by before the donor receives an acknowledgement, the donor’s feeling of joy and the emotional connection to that gift begin to fade. Don’t risk that loss.
Instead, use the gift acknowledgement as an opportunity to build momentum:
- If you use a standard template, personalize it appropriately.
- If the donor has been giving for 10 years, express your gratitude for a decade of loyal support.
- If the donor is a volunteer, acknowledge that service.
The final product should read like it was written uniquely for that donor. Be sure to include the gift amount and the program that will benefit from the gift. Finally, the letter should be personally signed and include a hand-written postscript (p.s.).
IV. Creative ways to show impact.
Demonstrate how the donor’s gift advanced your mission or made a difference in the lives of the people you serve. If you discussed meaningful stewardship as part of the solicitation process, you’ll know exactly what to do. If not, be strategic.
- If the donor values interaction with people in your organization, arrange a meeting with a trusted program leader who can describe the ultimate result of the gift.
- If the donor is a road warrior with little time for personal visits, send a compelling report.
- Letters and other communications from program beneficiaries are also appreciated by donors, because they exemplify pure gratitude (about which more below).
Be creative. Your impact reports and donor experiences should be affirming and inspiring.
It’s often easier to steward restricted gifts than unrestricted gifts, because the outcome is clear. However, given the critical need for unrestricted support, finding ways to steward unrestricted gifts is important. We need to move beyond general annual reports. Think about how to connect with donors at a deeper level. By surprising and delighting them with stories or experiences that demonstrate tangible results, you'll build the level of trust and loyalty necessary for increasingly generous unrestricted giving.
Remember: meaningful stewardship is the best cultivation for future giving. When stewardship is part of your organizational culture, you will naturally build stronger relationships with donors and achieve greater success in fundraising.
V. Experiences of pure gratitude.
If you complete steps one through four to steward every major gift, your organization will stand out. But we can – and should – do more to show our gratitude for the major donors who sustain our work. I recommend having one to two stewardship events per year (or periodic face-to-face meetings) where the sole purpose is to thank them, appreciate them and create opportunities to build community with other donors who share the joy of investing in a common cause.
Research conducted by Penelope Burk offers some great insight about the importance of this stewardship activity: 98% of the donors she interviewed said charities “never or hardly ever” visit without asking for money. This is a huge problem for our profession. When you think about it, major donors are typically the donors who receive face-to-face visits. They cannot feel connected to our organizations in an authentic way if we ask for money every time we see them. Incorporate experiences of pure gratitude into your stewardship plans, and you will develop your donor relationships to a new level.
Can you offer examples of “experiences of pure gratitude”?
When I worked at the Global Fund for Women, we hosted our first stewardship luncheon for donors. It was not a fundraising event. It was an opportunity for donors to learn about the results of their giving, and to connect with fellow donors who care deeply about women’s human rights. We secured corporate sponsors to cover the entire cost of the event, which made it a win-win: sponsors received recognition and visibility, and donors had the satisfaction of knowing their gifts weren’t paying for lunch. Donors left the event feeling valued and inspired. And we received many unsolicited gifts in the days following the event.
That's an example of a big event. But there are many ways to inspire donors in small but meaningful ways. It’s all about a) authenticity and b) creativity.
When I worked at Seattle Children’s Hospital, one of our donors funded a camp for children with craniofacial conditions. It was the first time that many of the children had the chance to connect with kids who understood their experience. The camp was made possible entirely by philanthropy. We created a scrapbook with photos of kids engaged in various camp activities and letters from some of the campers. When I presented the scrapbook to the donor, she was blown away. She had no idea how powerful her gift was until she saw the letters and the photos. It deepened her connection to the hospital, the program and the kids who benefited from her generosity.
These are joyful aspects of fundraising. Why are they so difficult to implement?
I think we are too focused on getting the next gift -– and the gift after that. Non-profit organizations are under tremendous pressure to raise money. They need to keep the lights on and the programs running. It’s understandable that people are focused on front-line fundraising. But thanking donors is the easiest and most joyful part of our job and it does wonders to strengthen donor relationships. Fundraising is hard work. We’re asking people for money, and sometimes people say no. Fundraisers experience tremendous stress on the job.
But making that call to thank a donor is the best call that we can possibly make. If you don't make it, you're denying your donor and your organization multiple positive results. If you don’t make that call, you:
- Deny yourself a joyful moment in your day
- Deny the donor the chance to feel appreciated, and
- Deny your organization the opportunity to deepen the relationship with the donor.
VI. What are some simple, low-cost ways to steward donors?
Volunteers can play an important role in your stewardship program. For example, involving board members in thank-you activities is an easy way to warm them up to fundraising, and to give them a manageable task that will almost always be a positive experience. On a weekly basis, ask board members to follow up with donors who have given a major gift, and to thank them with a phone call, personal letter or email. I recommend preparing board members for this task with a robust FAQ and a summary of current program developments so they'll feel confident in their role as ambassadors.
There are many other ways to connect with donors that are thoughtful but inexpensive, such as sending birthday cards or congratulating them on the arrival of a new baby, for example. Make sure you acknowledge important milestones in donors’ lives.
A quick bit of advice on how to solve the holiday card conundrum: send a Thanksgiving card. It’s the time of year when we express our gratitude and thanks, so it aligns perfectly with the message you’re conveying. And it frees your staff during the month of December to work on year-end gifts instead of sending hundreds of holiday cards.
What kind of return can organizations expect for their investment in stewardship?
The health and vitality of our organizations depend on fundraising programs rooted in authentic stewardship practices. If donors aren’t satisfied with their giving experience, they will look for other causes to support. The cost of losing major donors is incalculable over the organization’s lifetime. If you find that donor stewardship is lacking in your organization, take steps to improve it today. Seek training. Educate staff and board members. And use the handy checklist we’ve created to guide your stewardship plan for each major donor.
Stewardship will result in more money for your organization over time. But it’s also the right thing to do. We aren’t entitled to donors’ gifts. By demonstrating accountability and expressing gratitude through authentic stewardship activities, we will strengthen donor relationships in ways that lay the foundation for transformational giving and mission fulfillment.
For your reference, here's a checklist of the steps discussed above:
Authentic Major Gifts Stewardship: A Checklist
1. A conversation before the gift is secured.
As part of the solicitation process, ask the donor two questions: “How can we steward your gift in a meaningful way?" and "What would that look like for you?" This conversation gives you a better sense of who your donors are, what motivates their giving, and where they’d like more or less engagement.
2. A phone call within 48 hours of receiving the gift.
A personal call is essential. In the event that your acknowledgement letter is delayed, the donor won’t be wondering if the gift was lost in the mail. This is a great task for board members and volunteers.
3. A meaningful acknowledgement letter within five days of receiving the gift.
Ideally, you will send the thank-you letter within 72 hours. Personalize it appropriately to acknowledge the donor’s relationship with the organization. Be sure to include the gift amount and the program that will benefit from the gift. The letter should be personally signed and include a hand-written postscript.
4. Creative ways to show impact.
Demonstrate how the donor’s gift advanced your mission or made a tangible difference within a timeframe appropriate for the gift and its purpose. Be creative. Your communications should be affirming and inspiring.
5. Experiences of pure gratitude.
Organize at least two events or face-to-face meetings with donors where the sole purpose is to thank them, appreciate them and create opportunities to build community with other donors who share the joy of investing in a common cause.
6. Low-cost personal touches.
Acknowledge milestones like birthdays and achievements that are personal to your donors.