How To Create an Effective Donor Stewardship Program in 8 Simple Steps

Fundraising December 17, 2021

Sayana Izmailova

By Sayana Izmailova

As a fundraiser, you likely spend much of your time promoting your cause, organizing campaigns, and soliciting new gifts. But what happens after a gift has been made? Is the work over? 


Far from it. This is where donor stewardship begins. Ideally, you’ll have another staff member or team dedicated to donor stewardship, since it requires just as much time and effort as actual fundraising. After all, it’s just as important!


If you haven’t yet developed a robust donor stewardship plan, keep reading. We’ll go over exactly what donor stewardship is, why it’s important, and how to create a stewardship plan that works for your organization. 

What Is Donor Stewardship?

When a donor makes a gift to your organization, they begin a relationship with you. Donor stewardship is the act of managing this relationship—making sure the donor feels like it’s mutually beneficial, feels appreciated and needed by your organization. 


The relationship comes with a certain level of trust—the donor trusts that you will spend their money wisely. A big part of donor stewardship is honoring this trust, following through on the donor’s intent for how the money should be spent, and reporting back on the impact their gift has made. 

What Is Good Donor Stewardship?

Good donor stewardship starts the minute that a gift is made. Within the first 24 hours, you can call the donor or send them a quick email to thank them for their gift. Within the first 48 hours, you can send them an official thank you letter in the mail, including a tax receipt. Within the first month, they should receive a welcome package with everything they need to know about being a part of your donor community. 


From this point on, you should keep in constant contact with the donor. For most donors, this will be through your emails, newsletters, social media, donor events, and impact reports. For major gift donors, this may be through regular phone calls or even lunch meetings. 


Regardless of their level of giving, the key to great donor stewardship is to personalize it as much as you can. Use donor data to customize each communication and make each donor feel like it was written just for them. This will strengthen your relationship with your donors and help them feel seen, valued, and appreciated. 

Why Is Stewardship Important for Fundraising?

For one, donor stewardship is about expressing gratitude. Your organization likely wouldn’t exist without your donors, so let them know how much you value their support. 


From a fundraising perspective, donor stewardship is the key to consistent revenue that’s easier and more cost effective to bring in. 


There are two main ways that your organization receives support from donors: by acquiring new donors and by asking existing ones. Acquiring new donors—though absolutely necessary for the long-term growth of your organization—can be costly, time consuming, and ineffective. You need to spend resources to promote your cause to people who may have never heard of you and try and convince them to donate. 


Asking existing donors is much easier—they already know who you are, they share your values, and they have the capacity and desire to support you. That being said, asking existing donors only works if you’ve put in the effort to properly steward your relationship with them. This is why donor stewardship is so important—when you take the time to build and strengthen relationships with your donors, they’ll be much more likely to donate again, donate often, and remain a part of your community for years to come.

Build Your Donor Stewardship Team

Every donor stewardship team looks different. Some have 5-6 staff members dedicated entirely to stewardship, while others have just one or two. Some organizations don’t have anyone working on donor stewardship full-time and instead, have fundraisers take care of it in between their fundraising activities. 


What your team looks like will depend largely on the size of your organization, the number of donors you have in your community, and your budget. 


In an ideal world, your donor stewardship would have a director or manager to oversee the entire program, someone to take care of the administrative tasks like sending letters and issuing tax receipts, and a few more staff members who’ll take care of stewardship activities for different donor groups (separated by giving level). 


If your nonprofit is on the smaller side, you should definitely take advantage of donor management software tools that will help you automate the administrative side of donor stewardship, like sending mass communications. This will free up your time to provide more tailored stewardship to major gift donors and corporate partners. 

Create a Donor Stewardship Plan in 8 Steps

Your donor stewardship program doesn’t have to be overly complicated, especially when you’re first starting out. Stick to the basic steps outlined below and see if they’re manageable. As your organization grows, you’ll be able to hire more people and introduce new stewardship initiatives to take the program to the next level. 

1. Make it Easy to Give

Donor stewardship isn’t just about what happens after a gift has been made. It’s also about the donor’s overall experience with your organization. 


Think of great donor service like great customer service—make their experience simple, smooth, and pleasant. Optimize your website and create an easy-to-fill online donation form. Provide lots of different options for how to make a gift, so you can accommodate every donor’s preferences and needs. 


If donors ever need to contact you with a question, concern, or technical issue, make sure you’re easy to reach. Someone should always be available to answer the donor support phone line and respond to emails within 24 hours. 

2. Say Thank You—and Welcome!

As we’ve already covered in the section on good stewardship practices, every donor has to be thanked for their gift. Ideally, you should send a thank you message more than once—start with a phone call or email, then send a letter with a tax receipt. 


You can also thank donors on other occasions—how about sending them a holiday card to remind them how grateful you are? Thank your long standing donors by sending them an anniversary card a year, five, or ten years after they make their first gift.


Every new donor should also get a welcome package. This can be sent within a month of their first gift and can include things like:


  • A letter from your leadership

  • A letter from a grateful beneficiary 

  • A brief summary of what their gift will support

  • A small thank-you gift like a pen, notepad, keychain, or packet of tea

  • A calendar of upcoming events

  • A new donor survey and BRE (business reply envelope)

  • A list of important dates, resources, and contact information 


Read More: 3 Ways a Welcome Package Can Affect Your Donor Relationships

3. Honor Donor Intent

Donor intent is the purpose of the gift. It’s where the donor would like the money to be directed and what they would like it to support. 


Honoring donor intent is extremely important. If you promise the donor that their money will be spent one way, but then spend it on something else, this breaks the donor’s trust in your organization and can be detrimental to your relationship. 


If you can’t honor donor intent due to unforeseen circumstances, have an honest conversation with the donor about other options that would still be mutually fulfilling. 


Read More: Understanding Donor Intent and How to Honor It

4. Let Them Know Their Impact

How will you let the donor know that you’re honoring their intent? By keeping them up to date on what their contribution has made possible. Some time after the gift has been made, and you’ve had a chance to spend the funds, show the donor what impact their support has helped to create. 


For most donors, this can be through a newsletter, annual report, email, and social media. For major donors and corporate partners who fund larger projects, you can create custom impact reports with stories from beneficiaries and detailed financial reports. 

5. Segment Your Donors

The most effective donor stewardship is highly customized. To achieve this, use a donor management software and track as much data about your donors as possible. This can include information like:


  • the date of their first gift

  • the funds they’re interested in supporting

  • how they’d like to be contacted

  • how often they’d like to give


Knowing this information will help you communicate with your donors in a way that makes them feel seen and appreciated. It will also allow you to send the right message to the right people at the right time—the best way to maintain relationships with your donors. 


Read More: 4 Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Donor Data

6. Develop Your Repeat Donors

You can also use donor data to identify one-time donors who have the potential to donate again, develop monthly donors, or reactivate lapsed donors


Don’t make the ask too quickly, though. Instead, spend some time sending relevant communications, thanking donors for their past support, and showing their impact. 


The idea isn’t to manipulate past donors into giving again—it’s to develop a mutually beneficial relationship and give donors the opportunity to get more involved with a cause they care about. 

7. Let Them Give Their Time

Some of your donors may be looking for a way to get even more involved with your organization. Offer them the opportunity to volunteer and contribute their time and talents. This will strengthen their relationship with your organization and make it much more personal. 


Over time, engaged donors and volunteers may turn into advocates for your organization, or maybe even evangelists, helping to bring in other donors and volunteers from their own networks. 

8. Get Feedback—and Make It Count!

Not sure whether you’re providing the best experience for your donors? Just ask them! 


Surveying your donors and getting feedback is one of the best ways to ensure that they are happy, feeling appreciated, and excited to be a part of your community. 


Of course, if upon conducting the survey, you identify any room for improvement, be sure to implement these changes as soon as you can. 

How Wild Apricot Can Help

Wild Apricot can be used as a donor management software to completely transform your donor stewardship program. You can use it to collect donations, keep track of donor data, and send personalized communications to your donors. 


The best part? It will completely automate most of the administrative tasks related to running your nonprofit, so you can focus on building your community and advancing your mission. 


Click here to start a free 30-day trial of Wild Apricot!

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