Donor Stewardship: 4 Tips to Elevate Your Strategy

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This post was contributed by Aly Sterling. 

Your nonprofit likely invests a considerable amount of energy and resources into attracting new donors. When you’re trying to reach a new audience, it often feels like a secured donation represents a fundraising finish line.

However, a single donation is far from the end goal. A sustainable fundraising strategy will consider a new donation as the start of a race rather than the end. The day a new donor makes a gift to your nonprofit should be the first step in a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

Donor stewardship is the practice of cultivating a long-term relationship with a donor after they have given to your organization. Often, stewardship is thought of as a cyclical process that encourages donors to stay involved and make additional increasing gifts over time. Since a strong relationship is built on connection rather than contributions, a thoughtful stewardship strategy will drive your mission forward in good times and bad.

In order to effectively steward your organization’s donors and cultivate strong relationships, you should:

  1. Understand and respond to supporters.
  2. Provide a variety of engagement opportunities.
  3. Use supporter data to craft more effective communications.
  4. Revisit your donor recognition policy.

Throughout these efforts, your goal is to help donors feel connected and committed to your mission. This will help form an engaged community, boost your retention rate and increase the likelihood that donors will increase their contribution amounts. Plus, it’s simply more cost-effective to retain existing donors to attract new ones.

1. Understand and respond to supporters.

Throughout all of your stewardship efforts, remember that you’re trying to establish a relationship rather than simply string together a series of transactions. While you of course need donations in order to pursue your mission, try to let fundraising take a backseat to emotional connection. Donors want your organization to treat them as people, not as piggy banks.

An individualized and responsive fundraising approach can help you to increase generosity and improve donor retention.

It’s important to respond to the needs of each individual donor rather than simply treating them as an impersonal whole. To do so, you’ll need to listen carefully to supporters through both direct and indirect means. Consider using tactics like social listening to monitor the conversation happening around your work online. For a more hands-on approach, send surveys to supporters to learn more about what drew them to your organization or how they want to connect with your cause.

Later in this article, we’ll explore how to convert this knowledge into action, such as how to incorporate personalization into your marketing and communications strategy.

2. Provide a variety of engagement opportunities.

Stewarding donors involves connecting on a personal level rather than a transactional one. As such, it’s important to offer ongoing community interaction as well as non-financial opportunities for engagement.

First, consider how you might foster one-to-one or small group relationships with and among supporters. For major donors, make sure you have a plan in place to cultivate their relationships with regular conversations about their impact. Every so often, someone from your organization should reach out to check-in, either with an in-person meeting (once this is safe to resume) or a phone call.

However, for large organizations with innumerable mid-level and small donors, it’s likely not feasible to call up everyone in your donor database. Instead, you may offer opportunities for donors to connect with one another and bond over their commitment to your organization. Stewardship events (which can be virtual) like happy hours or a tour of your facility can help you accomplish this.

Additionally, it’s helpful to offer ways for your supporters to give back to your organization that don’t require any kind of monetary support, such as:

  • Volunteering. Encourage supporters to donate their time and skills to your organization through volunteer opportunities. If possible, try to suggest volunteer opportunities to supporters based on what you know about their interests and experiences. For example, you might contact supporters who made financial gifts towards last year’s holiday toy drive to help you sort and deliver this year’s presents. You may also consider virtual volunteering ideas for supporters to contribute time while in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
  • In-kind donations. While the specific items on your wishlist will vary widely depending on the nature of your mission, most nonprofits have some need for in-kind donations. For example, you may encourage supporters to donate gently used coats for your homeless shelter. Or, if you’re planning an upcoming raffle or auction, invite supporters to donate desirable items to be included in the lineup.

On top of these, you can also help supporters become aware of opportunities to support your organization financially without needing to make another gift. Corporate philanthropy programs such as matching gifts and volunteer grants allow supporters to leverage their existing contributions for an even bigger impact.

3. Use supporter data to craft more effective communications.

Knowing and understanding your supporters starts with data. Your nonprofit has access to a wealth of information about the demographics of your supporters as well as how, when and where they prefer to engage with your organization.

Ideally, all of this information should be collected and organized in your nonprofit’s CRM, which will make it easy to find and use the data to inform your various fundraising efforts.

One of the ways to leverage this data for the purpose of stewardship is to incorporate it into your communications, specifically your email marketing.

By using supporter data to craft more compelling emails, you increase the likelihood that recipients will find the messages relevant, interesting and worthy of further engagement. A customized email is a tool to strengthen a relationship, while an impersonal mass email (like one addressed to “dear friend”) could potentially work against you.

Consider the following ways in which you could leverage supporter information for more effective communication:

  • Segmentation. Donor segmentation refers to the practice of dividing your supporter base into groups based on selected criteria. For example, you may choose to create segments such as first-time donors, donors who attended a recent event or donors who often participate in volunteer opportunities. Then, you’ll be better equipped to speak to the impact of each group or invite them to engage in a way that aligns with their past involvement.
  • Personalization. You can integrate the data you have on supporters into your email communications for a more compelling message. For instance, including a supporter’s name in the email subject can lead to an open rate that is up to 50% higher. You can also take it a step further by referencing other data such as a recent gift amount.

Emails that make use of these strategies help supporters to feel more connected to your organization. However, they require a strong foundation of supporter data and a well-integrated tech stack in order to be feasible, so start off by making sure you have that infrastructure in place.

4. Revisit your donor recognition policy.

Donors who give to your organization will be far more likely to continue donating if they understand how vital they are to your mission. A core part of your stewardship plan should be appreciating and recognizing donors at all levels.

First, thanking your donors is a critical step to ensure a first-time donation is the start of a relationship rather than a one-time action. Donors that receive a thank-you message within 48 hours of their gift are 4x as likely to make another contribution in the future.

Next, a robust donor recognition policy helps ensure your longtime supporters feel appreciated and impactful. This policy should be consistent, appropriate and appreciative10. With a clearly defined policy, all gifts can be recognized fairly and meaningfully.

You’ll want to take the following into account when creating your donor recognition strategy:

  • What do you know about your donors’ motivations for giving to your organization?
  • How can you most effectively recognize different types of donors?
  • How can you recognize donors in a way that is meaningful yet also proportionate to their contribution?
  • Should the acknowledgment be private or public?
  • Do you need additional resources or expertise to execute the strategy?
  • How will you recognize cumulative giving, if at all?

Throughout these questions, you’ll notice an emphasis on tailoring the recognition to the donor and the gift. For example, a spot on a donor recognition wall is appropriate for a major or planned gift, while a small donation is best recognized with a smaller token of gratitude like a branded sticker. This ties back to the idea that donor stewardship should be an individualized process.

A Donor-Centric Strategy Has Long-Term Benefits

To sum up, a donor-centric stewardship strategy will have long-term benefits for your nonprofit. By personalizing your interactions and communications, providing engagement opportunities and recognizing donors in meaningful ways, you’ll strengthen the commitment each donor has to your mission.

About Aly Sterling

Aly Sterling Philanthropy

Long before Aly Sterling founded her eponymous consulting firm, she was solving the unique yet similar problems encountered by nonprofit organizations.

Her decision to start her own business in 2007 was driven by her belief in leadership as the single most important factor in organizational success, and her determination to work with multiple causes at one time to scale societal change.

Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute.

Aly Sterling Philanthropy

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