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

Korrin Bishop Avatar
Korrin Bishop
Published on January 6, 2023

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 everything you need to know. Starting with:

What Is Donor Stewardship? 

When a donor makes a gift to your organization, they begin a relationship with you. Donor stewardship is about of managing this relationship—making sure the donor views it as mutually beneficial. Stewardship in nonprofit organizations should leave donors feeling appreciated.  

Like all relationships, those with your donors rely on a certain level of trust—trust that you’ll spend their money wisely. A big part of donor stewardship in fundraising is honoring this trust. Follow through on the donor’s intent for how the money should be spent, and report back on the impact their gift has made.  

What Is Good Donor Stewardship? 

Good donor stewardship starts the minute a gift is made. You’ll want to have a stewardship donation plan to initiate as soon as you receive the gift. It might look like this:  

  • First 24 hours: Call the donor or send them a quick email to thank them for their gift 
  • First 48 hours: Send the donor an official thank you letter in the mail, including a tax receipt 
  • First month: Deliver a welcome package with everything the supporter needs to know about being a part of your donor community  

After welcoming supporters during your first month of donor stewardship, you should plan to keep in constant contact with them. For most donors, this will be through things like:  

  • Emails 
  • Newsletters 
  • Social media 
  • Donor events 
  • Impact reports 

For major gift donors, you may want to consider regular phone calls or even lunch meetings.  

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

Why Is Stewardship Important for Fundraising? 

From a fundraising perspective, donor stewardship is the key to consistent revenue. Fundraising alone may get you one-time donations, but stewardship fundraising builds the kind of relationships that will opt for recurring donation frequencies. 

There are two main ways your organization receives support from donors:  

  1. Acquiring new donors 
  2. Asking existing ones  

 Acquiring new donors—though absolutely necessary for the long-term growth of your organization—can be costly and time-consuming. It requires spending resources to promote your cause to people who may have never heard of you, trying to convince them to donate.  

 Asking existing donors is much easier. Current donors already:  

  • Know who you are 
  • Share your values 
  • Have the capacity and desire to support you  

That being said, asking existing supporters to donate again only works if you’ve put in the effort to properly steward your relationships 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 
  • Remain a part of your community for years to come 

So, what is stewardship in fundraising? It’s a chance to make nonprofit fundraising efforts easier and more cost-effective. While doing so, it’s also an opportunity to express your gratitude for the donors who allow your organization to exist. Let them know how much you value their support!  

Build Your Donor Stewardship Team 

Every donor stewardship team looks different. Some have five to six staff members dedicated entirely to donor relations, while others have just one or two.  

Some organizations may not have anyone working on donor stewardship full-time. In these cases, donor stewardship may be split up among all staff regardless of position or default to the leaders of particular fundraising events. 

What your team looks like will depend largely on the:   

  • Size of your organization 
  • Number of donors in your community 
  • Budget 

In an ideal world, your donor stewardship would have a:  

  • Director or manager to oversee the entire program  
  • Administrative assistant to cover tasks like sending thank-you letters and tax receipts 
  • Leads who 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.  

How to Include Your Board Members in Stewarding Donors 

Board members are important individuals for your fundraising team! They can make new connections and help steward current ones. To effectively leverage your board for donor stewardship, you’ll need to:  

  • Select the right members 
  • Define ways they can be involved 
  • Prepare them for the task ahead 

Select the Right Board Members for Donor Stewardship 

Donors view board members as leaders of the nonprofits they represent. Nonprofit board members volunteer their time and expertise to be champions of a cause they care about and the organization they think is doing the best job to help that cause.  

However, not all board members need to have an active role in donor stewardship activities. Instead, you may want to select one board member to focus on donor relations or encourage a subcommittee within your board for those interested in helping with the effort. 

When considering which board members are good candidates to recruit for your nonprofit’s donor stewardship program, look for those who are:  

  • A people person: A natural inclination toward being social and friendly can be valuable for connecting with donors! 
  • Punctual: Stewardship materials need to be sent on time, making well-organized, timely board members an asset. 
  • Connected in the community: A robust network of connections with local businesses, leaders, and others can provide resources for donor appreciation events. 
  • A donor themselves: Board members who are also donors offer a unique perspective. 
  • Attitude of gratitude: Showing appreciation is a critical part of donor stewardship, so look for members who are generous with their thank yous! 

Ideas for Getting Board Members Involved in Stewarding Donors 

Not all board members will want to do face-to-face donor stewardship. That’s OK! The best way to get your board members involved with stewardship activities is to offer an array of ideas for how they can get involved. 

Make a quick list of roles your board members can sign up for, so they can review their options during your pitch. Some of the donor stewardship ideas you may want to pose to board members include: 

  • Sign and mail letters to donors 
  • Schedule quarterly one-on-one lunches with major donors 
  • Give the welcome speeches at events 
  • Make phone calls to check-in on donors 
  • Host an annual donor meet-and-greet or appreciation event 
  • Manage the stewardship subcommittee to ensure all tasks are on track 
  • Ensure automated systems are functioning properly for stewardship actions like sending donors birthday cards or welcome packages 

Prepare Your Board Members to Be Effective Donor Stewards 

Especially if board members are new to donor stewardship, they may feel nervous or confused about getting started. That’s normal! And it’s also something you can easily mitigate by providing initial preparation and reference materials. 

To help prepare your board members to be successful in their donor stewardship efforts: 

  • Conduct an orientation: Explain what donor stewardship is and your board’s role in it. 
  • Create a cheat sheet: Share facts, figures, and stories about your nonprofit that board members can use in interactions with donors. 
  • Provide major donor briefs: Offer one-pagers that give board members background on the major donors they steward. 
  • Train them on your software: Allow board members to add key donor stewardship data to your donor management software. 
  • Communicate deadlines: Give notice in advance of when stewardship actions are due! 
  • Establish regular check-ins: Let board members know the cadence for when you’ll be connecting with them. 

The Donor Stewardship Pyramid and Cycle 

The donor stewardship pyramid and donor lifecycle are two tools that can help organize and inform your donor relations work. 

The donor lifecycle refers to the different stages a donor will go through when forming or strengthening their relationship with your nonprofit. These four key donor cycles include: 

  1. Prospecting: Research and get to know a donor. 
  1. Cultivation: Show that donor why your cause is a good fit for them. 
  1. Requesting: Ask for your first donation. 
  1. Stewardship: Thank the donor, learn more about them, and prepare for your next ask. 

A donor stewardship pyramid groups your current supporters into different cohorts based on giving level, such as: 

  • Major donors 
  • Mid-level or recurring donors 
  • One-time or small donors 
  • Volunteers, in-kind donors, and prospects 

These cohorts form a pyramid shape in that there are fewer major donors up top and ample prospective donors at the base. Your small cohort of major donors will require your most in-depth, personalized stewardship approaches. Meanwhile, your large cohort of potential donors will receive lighter, but consistent outreach to encourage their first gift. 

You can use your organization’s donor stewardship pyramid in conjunction with your donor data to identify where donors are in the donor lifecycle and which next stewardship actions make the most sense for them. And don’t be afraid to segment your donors further within each level of the pyramid for even more personalized outreach!  

Within each donor pyramid cohort, you could further group supporters by things such as: 

  • Interests 
  • Past event participation 
  • Communication preferences 
  • Giving capacity 

Mapping these donor stewardship groups out ultimately helps you save time and resources! You can personalize the donor stewardship experience while automating much of the process. 

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 you would great customer service—make the donor 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 one, 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 
  • Letter from a grateful beneficiary  
  • Brief summary of what their gift will support 
  • Small thank-you gift like a pen, notepad, keychain, or packet of tea 
  • Calendar of upcoming events 
  • New donor survey and business reply envelope 
  • 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. It 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.  

Whether to report that you’ve successfully spent their gift or to discuss a potential change of course, effective donor stewardship means having communication strategies in place for those conversations.  

 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 a supporter donates, and once you’ve had a chance to spend the funds, show the donor the impact of their gift. For most donors, this can be through a:  

  • Newsletter 
  • Annual report 
  • Email 
  • Social media mention 
  • Video message 

For major donors and corporate partners who fund larger projects, you’ll want to have some additional donor stewardship ideas for communicating impact. For example, 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: 

  • Date of their first gift 
  • 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:  

Don’t make additional asks 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. As part of your donor stewardship plan, 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! By doing so, they become informal members of your donor stewardship team, 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. This shows organizational accountability and that you truly listen to your donors. It demonstrates that you value building a long-term relationship with your donor community. 

How Wild Apricot Can Help With Donor Stewarding 

We’ve covered a lot in this article on how to create a donor stewardship plan and help donors feel more connected to your nonprofit. With all of this insight, you might be wondering what the best next step to take is for your stewardship program!  

Well, when it comes to donor stewardship best practices, using effective software to track and organize your donor stewardship plans is top of the list! 

Wild Apricot can be used as a donor management software to completely transform your donor stewardship program. You can use it for key stewardship activities, such as to:  

  • Collect donations 
  • Keep track of donor data 
  • Send personalized communications to your donors 

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

Click here to start a free 60-day trial of Wild Apricot! 

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