Why Now Is the Right Time to Steward Your Donors

How are you?

Three words never meant so much.

Whether it’s your brother or spouse, a friend or co-worker, everyone likes to know that someone they care about cares back and is willing to listen.

Our good friend and colleague Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP®, Professor of Charitable Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, echoes the same sentiment in his recent article 10 Strategies for Post-COVID Fundraising in Complex & Major Gifts. In it, he points out that during a crisis, it’s important to show support—or as we noted last week, to focus on the human side of our work.

So, how are you?

These words have never meant so much to donors, prospects and those who care about your organization too.

Time to Get Real

We’re all giving back these days, not simply as a gesture that we discuss in blogs because it’s good for donor relations or growing a legacy society. Strip away the business of what we do and you’ll uncover that it’s in our hearts to care and give back. People, especially those of us in the nonprofit world, thrive on being together, with community, connecting and taking care of one another. We’re hardwired to nurture the good stuff that grows out of rocky circumstances.

A New Normal

On “normal” days in planned giving, you’re model stewards. I’ve heard so many inspiring donor stories built on connections, even how donors have become friends—commonalities sprung from a shared passion and appreciation for your nonprofit’s mission and impact.

There’s also the multitude of thank-you events, donor appreciation lists and soirees. The outpouring of public love.

Today, and for the next few months, however, it’s going to get more personal, more one-to-one. Stewardship is evolving into a very different meaning.

Stewardship Is Staying in Touch

Right now, over these next few months, remember that your priority isn’t stewarding gifts. It’s stewarding people. It’s not talking about gift vehicles explicitly but rather the gift of connection and service to one another. After all, isn’t that one of the lasting legacies you and your organization want to achieve? Deeper relationships, not just a one-time thanks-for-the-gift touchpoint.

If your nonprofit (and you!) are to stay relevant and purposeful right now, may we give you a nudge: This isn’t the time to retreat mentally or professionally, or adopt the mindset that this too will pass in a few month’s time and you can get back to business.

Your people—donors, volunteers, board members and those who’ve shown they care about you and what you do—are in need of connection and community.

And this is where you will shine, because reaching out may be the best use of your time. As I shared in my video message last week, “Answering today’s key questions,” the nonprofits and corporations that doubled-down and stayed the course, with relevant marketing and messaging, emerged from uncertain times (e.g., post-9/11, the 2008 recession) much better than their peers. But how?

Be Clear & Positive

Talk about the current situation—and ask people, “Really, how are you? We’re with you.” Share how the pandemic is affecting your community, whether at a local level or within your nonprofit community and its ability to sustain the mission.

But stay away from scary talk and radioactive words and images.

Instead, enlighten and educate. Tell people why a planned gift may be a better giving solution than ever before. Some talking points:

  • Making a planned gift enables donors to achieve their dreams of a legacy yet stay in control of their finances in murky economic times.
  • Donors don’t have to part with resources today. A planned gift is just that—planned, for a future date, so it won’t affect resources today. Additionally, the most common planned gift—a gift in a donor’s will—is not only one of the easiest to make but also revocable, meaning it can be taken back if the donor believes that is in his or her best interest.  
  • Donors also can use retirement plan assets, like IRAs and 401(k)s, and leave less heavily taxed assets such as life insurance, securities and real estate to their loved ones.
  • Donors have other attractive giving options, like making a percentage gift in their will, or choosing gifts that pay them income, like charitable gift annuities and charitable remainder trusts; all offer tax benefits.

A Phone Call Doesn’t Cost Much

While you might not reach out to every donor with a phone call, the point is to reach out, not sit still.

If prospects that you’ve been working with suddenly express hesitation about their prospective gift, remind them of the above points and cite specific types of gifts that address those hesitations:

“I totally understand where you’re coming from. But remember, a planned gift doesn’t affect your finances today. And you can change your mind at any time. There are even planned gifts that can pay you quarterly or annual income. Let’s talk through what you’re thinking right now and how we can help set you up for success.”

The same idea works with digital sends and social media.

  • Show photos that humanize your organization—how staffers are working together despite social distancing (in funny and serious ways)
  • Post photos and stories of staffers working from home offices (follow us on Facebook or Instagram to see our working-from-home stories)
  • Include social “shout-outs” to essential partners and vendors that are still working to help you in missional work or fast-tracked grants awarded or received to minimize the pandemic’s effects
  • Share positive videos from your ED about your nonprofit’s continual impact, especially in light of today’s ever-changing news

Our Stewardship Story

On Friday, March 13 I sent an email about COVID-19 to all of Stelter’s clients:


As I mentioned in the email, it was difficult to put into words what we were, and still are, going through. My strategy: Be empathetic, transparent and sincere.

Writing about such heavy topics can feel intimidating—but it needs to be done. Again, we are all craving community. Your donors are awaiting communication from their loved ones: family, friends and YOU.

At the end of the day, communication is all about connecting. Because of this email, I was able to connect with one of our clients on a more meaningful level. After reading our email, she kept the conversation going and sent me this note:

You haven’t met me, but I received your client email and had to share it with more than 3,000 donor relations professionals on the ADRP listserv as an example of excellent communication. Naturally, you’re a communications company and I’d expect you to have excellent communication skills. But this message stands out among the hundreds of ‘We at XYZ Company’ emails that lack warmth or connection.

Thank you for leading by example.

You’ve likely come up with your own fantastic ideas. Whatever you do, keep it human. We all need to see that amazing organization of yours doing what it does best by reaching out, listening and helping people—asking them, “How are you?” especially during challenging life circumstances.

But let’s get back to you.

How are you? Let us know below.

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