Here’s the #1 Quality You Need for Successful Donor Stewardship. (Plus, Tips to Do It Right.)

I was looking for new perspectives on the always important topic of donor stewardship, so I spent some time really digging in—reading, listening to podcasts, and talking with clients and colleagues. I kept asking myself, “What is there to say about donor stewardship that hasn’t already been said?”

Then I looked down, not at my laptop, but at my heart. Maybe, I thought, it’s not what you know about donor stewardship but how you feel about it.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you feel honored and grateful when a donor makes a gift?
  • Do you want to continue in conversation, to know more about their family and important life stories?
  • Are your donors the first people you want to connect with when you read news of breakthrough research, a state-of-the-art campus building or a vital new community service?

This sense of “stewarding” comes from the heart and a real desire to create a lasting connection.

Stewarding donors from the heart compels us to do and be better in our work. A recent study found that 83% of employees seek meaning in their day-to-day work but only 5% feel that their work is important. Tapping into the heart is a reminder that, good days and bad, we’re pretty fortunate to do what we do.

What #1 Quality Enables You To Compassionately Steward Donors? 

Empathy. I’m guessing you naturally possess it. It would be difficult to do what you do for a living if you didn’t. At its core, empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand and have compassion for the feelings of others. Here are some strategies to keep it present in your everyday life, strengthening your ability when it comes to stewarding your donors.

>> Talk to new and different people. When it feels right, strike up a conversation with an acquaintance. Go beyond small talk; instead of asking about their job, ask what brings them joy.

>> Walk in other people’s shoes. More than listening, empathy is imagining what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes. Ask donors questions about their lives—and refrain from inserting similar stories about your own life, which turns the focus back onto you.

>> Join a shared cause. We all have something in common, even if we support different causes. Stepping into what brings you together instead of what divides reinforces empathy.

Put Empathy Into Action 

These types of activities strengthen donor bonds and cultivate relationships built on trust, respect, and, of course, heart.  

New Donors 

Thank them promptly and with sincerity. 

  • The decision to make a gift is a special moment for donors. Treat that decision with respect by making a thank-you visit, a phone call or sending a handwritten note from your CEO or board chair.
  • Include details in your outreach that are specific and meaningful to your donor.
  • Write with a warm, authentic tone and long-term perspective. (“Your gift will enable children who live in low-income communities to receive vital dental care for generations to come.”)

Ask them how they want to receive communications and how often. 

  • Consideration is key. Would they prefer to receive a newsletter, email, text or a more personal phone call when you want to share news or exclusive donor invitations?
  • For new planned giving donors, ask if they would like to join your nonprofit’s legacy society program. If they decline, make note of it and be sure to respect their wish.

TIP: Document as much information on your donors as possible. Include how they envision their legacy and what programs they would like to see funded. Be sure to update reports, like gift intention forms and database records, as often as needed.

Create a plan for ongoing thanks and outreach which leads to stewarding them as… 

Existing Donors (Sustain the Love)

Keep sharing stories about the difference they’re making. 

Provide opportunities to see the impact firsthand. 

  • Plan a field trip to see a program in action, like an afterschool art club at a community center, or take them with you to serve meals to neighbors in need.
  • Invite donors to join conference calls to hear organizational updates or from respected researchers, leaders and others in your nonprofit. 

Be intentional about reaching out to donors on anniversaries and events that are meaningful to them.

  • Every year, send a birthday card from your nonprofit. 
  • Anniversary cards celebrate donor loyalty.
  • Note important dates or events donors mention in conversation; if appropriate, follow up to ask how it went or to let them know you’re thinking about them.

Create moments for fun. 

  • Plan a mixer for donors to talk with impacted individuals. Build in time for a meaningful activity they can do together, like planting a flower bed on campus, assembling kits for the homeless or writing kind notes for military members overseas.

With 71% of estate gifts being revocable, stewarding donors with heart is not only the right thing to do, but also the wise thing to do—to build relationships that stand the test of time to strengthen your nonprofit’s mission for the long term.

How have you successfully stewarded donors? Any approaches you’ve used that resonate? Let us know in the comment section below.

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