Take a fresh look at your stewardship program

Raising money in the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis is difficult. And it’s unlikely to get easier any time soon. That puts the onus on nonprofit institutions to stand out. It also makes it more important than ever to retain donors and their active support. One way to do so is by focusing on stewardship.

That’s easier said than done. After all, stewardship has evolved far beyond mailing a gift receipt in a timely fashion. To distinguish themselves, institutions need stewardship to be a much broader, more important piece of the donor relationship—especially for those donors who are able to make a significant gift.

When done well, stewardship serves as the crucial bridge between the moment a gift is received and acknowledged, to the moment that active conversations begin regarding the donor’s next gift. It involves a broad swath of people within the institution. That’s because fundraising is a team sport and a successful stewardship effort engages multiple stakeholders. Everyone can be asked to play a role, including executive leadership, caregivers, artists, students, gift officers, deans, faculty and coaches, researchers, and performers.

The payoff of such an investment is clear: GG+A’s SurveyLab has found that when an institution goes beyond demonstrating appreciation to a donor to show a gift’s impact–how it supports the institution’s mission—that donor is significantly more likely to give again and to give a larger gift.

What makes for a great stewardship program?

Before we go any further, I want to make an obvious point that, nonetheless, is incredibly important: A good stewardship program hits its marks by flawlessly performing the basic tasks. Whether a donor helped fund a scholarship, a building or a performance event, the institution finds a way to engage that donor in a way that suits that initiative. For example, a scholarship donor could receive a note from her scholarship recipient and/or be invited meet that recipient. Likewise a donor who contributes to a building fund or naming gift could receive an invitation to the building unveiling, and the donor who underwrites a performance could be invited to opening night.

It’s good to perform the basic tasks. But it is increasingly important to go above and beyond by being thoughtful and mindful of the specific donor and his or her interests.

David Dunlop, the Cornell University senior development officer who developed the concept of moves management, regularly referred to donors not as prospects but as his friends. That mindset encourages the stewardship team to think beyond a gift to consider what would be well received and appreciated by the whole person. A strong stewardship plan might empower a gift officer to invite a “friend” to a musical performance, for example, because the friend might find it interesting. The interaction might even lead to a deeper understanding of the friend’s interests and passions, which is critical information for inspiring another gift commitment. The idea is simple: If you have the opportunity to offer your friend something special, such as a special experience, do it.

When we evaluate stewardship programs on behalf of our clients we ask donors if the institution is doing a good, bad or indifferent job. Obviously, we don’t want to hear that the stewardship program is doing a bad job. Perhaps less obviously, we also don’t want to hear that it is doing an indifferent job because that’s a sign that it the institution is missing opportunities to distinguish itself among donors. In a time when raising money is getting more competitive, few institutions can afford missed opportunities.

Determine how your program is performing

There are many ways to get a sense of how your program is performing. Assessment doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, you might initiate a practice in which you routinely ask your donors about their experience and how it compares to their experience with other institutions they support. Another straightforward approach is to assess how your program stacks up to those at peer institutions. Of course, if you’re looking for a clear-eyed view of what you’re doing and how it is perceived, you can engage help from a third-party such as GG+A.

While you can learn from your peers, it’s important that your stewardship is appropriate and, wherever possible, unique to your institution. The key is to determine what is meaningful to the donor and appropriate to the institution and its mission.

Find ways to improve

Regardless of whether you believe that your stewardship program is good, great, or in need of a revamp, there are always ways to improve. Here are a few ideas:

  • Think broadly. Many people beyond the stewardship team don’t think they have role to play in building a stewardship plan for their donors. They’re wrong! Their insights are incredibly valuable when considering what the donor values and/or finds interesting. Encourage your colleagues to take part in planning and implementing stewardship. That can be a hard transition for some.
  • Acknowledge areas that could do better. You have a resource in the people you work with: your colleagues. Identify coworkers who are ready and willing to help you examine your efforts, identify strengths and areas for improvement, and come up with suggestions.
  • Find ways to reallocate or repurpose existing resources. While it is always a good idea to see if there’s content that has been produced for one audience that can be repurposed, it’s even more important when resources are scarce. For example, most institutions produce materials for governing boards. While much of that may not be appropriate for those not on the board, some of the information can find a “second life” with donors and can have the immediate benefit of giving donors an insider perspective.
  • Seek additional assistance. A third-party firm can offer guidance based on industry-wide best practices. An assessment can spark a discussion among those most interested and invested in the success of the program and enable them to move toward their objectives. By providing those valuable insights, along with a playbook by which to implement changes, can enable an institution to make significant changes.
Get to work

Every institution within this challenging environment needs to be examining where it can improve. By looking inward, institutions can identify critical areas that, if addressed, could significantly increase their fundraising.

At a time when many institutions are facing significant challenges, they can’t afford not to examine their stewardship efforts. After all, it’s those actions that help donors feel good about their gift and begin to consider their next commitment.


If you need assistance evaluating your stewardship program, please reach out to Eric at esnoek@grenzglier.com.

Grenzebach Glier & Associates Inc http://gga.ugmade.co/wp-content/themes/gga/assets/img/grenzebach-glier-and-associates-print-only.png
About the author

Eric Snoek

Senior Vice President

Eric Snoek, Senior Vice President, brings to the firm more than 30 years of development and advancement experience within higher education and independent educational institutions. He has extensive experience in individual giving, advancement planning and management, capital campaigns and campaign planning, training development staff and board members, engagement programs, stewardship…