High-Impact Donor Stewardship: Value Your Donors and Advance Your Fundraising Goals

High-Impact Donor Stewardship: Value Your Donors and Advance Your Fundraising Goals

Have you ever heard the saying, “Your best prospects are your current donors”? We know that stewardship plays a vital role in helping to appropriately thank and recognize donors for their generous contributions. We must also remember that it is essential to cultivating future support. 

In our work as fundraisers, we devote much of our energy to the cultivation activities leading up to a solicitation. But after a gift is secured and put to use, what next?   

Whether you’re running a large, complex fundraising operation, scaling a small or midsize program, or just getting started, consider how high-impact stewardship can build and sustain a culture of philanthropic support for your institution. 

The Goal: Improve Donor Retention  

When it comes to stewardship, think of a note of thanks and formal gift receipt as just the beginning. Best practice is to understand stewardship as a process of keeping donors interested and informed about what your organization is achieving – and helping them to feel a part of it.  

Brief surveys of your donors can help gauge their satisfaction with each stage of the giving process, including the initial ask, the transaction itself, recognition, and follow-up communications. In GG+A’s research from our Donor Experience Scorecard which is generated from such surveys we have seen that one of the primary reasons donors decide to stop giving is due to lack of meaningful information or a feeling that their giving is not appreciated.  

While human interest stories generate an emotional response and can be highly effective, transparency in how donated funds are used goes a long way in enhancing the relationship with your donors and sends a persuasive message to those contemplating a gift.  

Consider a donor who made a major gift to establish an immediate use scholarship fund. He was clear with the gift officer that for him to make a next gift after his multi-year pledge was fulfilled, he wanted to ensure his contribution was used as intended, and to learn about the student recipients and how they benefited from the scholarship. In addition to thank you letters, he asked for an academic year-end report from the students. Fulfilling these stewardship requests – along with providing clear financial reporting and updates on the scholarship awarding process along the way – encouraged this donor not only to renew, but also to increase his support. 

Good stewardship always has a strong educational component and demonstrates what has been accomplished through gifted funds. The more we can do to educate donors and volunteers about what they help make possible and new opportunities, the greater the likelihood that these donors will come forward with support when asked. 

The Goal: Elevate Mid-level Donors to Higher Levels of Giving 

For institutions that structure giving around memberships (such as arts and culture institutions), it can be easy to confuse membership benefits with stewardship, since both are typically organized to ensure donors at various giving levels are treated similarly and equitably. But stewardship is not a quid pro quo for a gift. It is a genuine effort to thank, educate, and influence donors in ways that encourage them to give again.   

Reflect on how you might use an event as stewardship. Do you want someone to better understand the success of a program? Invite her to come to the annual event as your guest. Let her experience what it’s like to be part of the group that made something wonderful possible. And then be sure to ask her if she would like to make the commitment necessary to be a part of the group.  

While it’s true that stewardship materials and experiences are generally developed for specific groups of people (e.g., donors at a certain dollar level) there is no reason you can’t share those materials with those you hope to persuade to give at that level. 

The Goal: Strengthen Your Volunteer Corps  

It’s often harder to recruit a volunteer than it is to find a new funder for a project. Retaining trained and dependable volunteers should always be a top priority, and stewardship can play a big role in getting the job done.   

People who contribute their time and energy to advocacy efforts, to strengthening your institution in the community, or to helping deliver services, are a vital part of your success. It may be difficult to quantify or value their contributions, but that doesn’t make their efforts any less important. So, why would we be any less thoughtful about how best to steward the commitment, time, and energy of our volunteers? 

There’s no rulebook for stewarding volunteers – no expectation of a mailed receipt, an email, or language to satisfy a claim made to the IRS. Rather, volunteer stewardship more often resembles acts of kindness. 

In addition to inviting and publicly acknowledging volunteers at official events, sharing a copy of a picture taken while the volunteer was serving, sending a thank-you letter to a partner or spouse for “loaning” their loved one’s service, or delivering a piece of “swag” or some other small gift representing your institution – these are just a few thoughtful ways that volunteer recognition can enhance your stewardship, and increase the likelihood your volunteers will continue their support. 

The Goal:  Engage Your Major and Principal Gift Officers

In addition to the broader-based stewardship offered by your organization, incorporate touchpoints into major and principal gifts strategies and thoughtfully personalize your interactions with your donors.  

Gift officers should be trained to consider stewardship as part of their jobs; while some may instinctually steward donors and do it very well, others may need encouragement and additional coaching. Providing newer gift officers with practical ideas for stewarding donors’ gifts helps ensure it becomes part of their day-to-day work. Here are just a few ways gift officers can take initiative, with the encouragement and support of their manager or leadership team: 

  • Endowed scholarship? Beyond a standard thank you letter, consider inviting a donor to meet recipients virtually or over a casual lunch or coffee.  
  • Programmatic fund? Include donors in a program event or activity, create a thank you video or photo album, and partner with the program leader to share regular updates.  
  • Faculty chair? Introduce donors to the new chair early on so a relationship may be forged and so updates become natural and organic.  

The Goal: Build a Major Gifts Pipeline 

Stewardship plays a critical role in pipeline development, particularly for annual and leadership annual giving supporters. Technology and digital outreach – from emails to social media – can be especially useful for communicating impact to large groups of supporters. You can use these tools to seek feedback from donors, obtain important insights, and identify those who wish to have even greater impact through their philanthropic support.  

Constituents surprise us time and again with what information they are willing to share in a survey, even when their responses are not anonymous.  Asking for input is a powerful tool! GG+A’s SurveyLab regularly conducts surveys for clients who are seeking to better understand their constituents, deepen their prospect pools, and glean donor perceptions. As we previously noted, results from these surveys consistently indicate that understanding the impact of giving is important for donors at all levels.  

For first-time donors, you might also consider a short, handwritten note of thanks from a student or program participant. Or schedule time monthly for the student phonathon or other volunteer groups to conduct thank you calls. Alternatively, create a recognition group to encourage repeat annual giving. Hosting virtual or in-person coffees for leadership annual giving donors to express thanks and allow them to meet each other can also effectively steward their support. 

The Goal: Enhance Stewardship on Any Budget

While there may be a perception that stewardship must be expensive to be effective, this is not the case. There are many ways to steward donors with simply your time and effort. Here are some possibilities: 

  • Group outreach. Think about a large cohort of donors supporting a specific priority and create a short thank you video from beneficiaries, accompanied by a brief message from you or a program director. Alternatively, host a thank you webinar. 
  • Custom templates. Design a thank you letter template that can easily be modified and sent to different donors as needed.  
  • In-person visits. Consider donors’ personal interests outside of their area of giving and align these with what is taking place at your institution to deepen engagement. Invite them to lecture series, performances, exhibitions, athletic contests, or other events. If the donor has expertise related to (or outside of) their gift focus, invite them to speak to a class or other constituents.  
  • Volunteer connections. Don’t overlook engaging your volunteers in stewardship efforts – asking them to make thank you calls or send handwritten notes will likely be rewarding for them and may also spark further engagement from your supporters. 

Be creative! Recognize donors in a way that is meaningful and furthers their commitment but is also sustainable for your team.  

People make gifts because they believe they can help address a problem or improve a situation through your specific organization’s mission and work. The more you can use thoughtful stewardship to demonstrate to donors that their gifts are well used, the more likely they will be to give again.  

Contact Eric Snoek at esnoek@grenzglier.com for assistance in developing your organization’s donor relations or stewardship plan. For guidance on infusing stewardship into major and principal gift fundraising, contact Ashley Lomery at alomery@grenzglier.com. 


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About the authors

Ashley Lomery

Vice President

Ashley Lomery is a Vice President in the higher education practice area at GG+A, where she plays a key role in supporting institutional clients with philanthropic management, including fundraising program assessments, feasibility studies, campaign planning, major gifts program planning and execution, and other strategic areas. She brings more than 25…

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…