I remember the first time I heard the word “stewardship” connected with philanthropy and donors. I was fresh out of college, in my first fundraising role, and trying to absorb as much about the world as possible (I knew nothing at that point). Our fundraising team was asked to brainstorm some unique stewardship ideas. I was hoping to pick up a few pearls of stewardship wisdom and instead everyone was silent—aside from a grumble about thank you notes and lists.
Flash forward 20 years and I certainly hope we have evolved beyond silence, a standard acknowledgement letter (“Thank you for your gift of…”), or running donor lists (“We’ll just put our donor names in the Annual Report.”)
Blah, blah, blah! Where’s the stewardship creativity?
Yes, of course we should continue to send acknowledgement letters, make thank you calls, and use other traditional means to steward our donors. But what can our nonprofits do to stand out? How can we keep our donors engaged and involved? How can we show our gratitude beyond a simple “thank you?”
In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information and data, we need to break through the noise and get to the heart of donor relationships. Here are a few stewardship moves that go beyond the mundane…
Let Your Donors See and Feel the Ministry Impact for Themselves.
Nothing can replace “being there” and experiencing a ministry first-hand.
Invite a seminarian to meet with a benefactor that funded their studies. Ask a donor to help feed the hungry at the soup kitchen. Offer a stewardship tour at a school. Invite a donor to meet with disaster victims. Ask a donor to take a mission trip with a program director. Especially during this Holy Year of Mercy, link the Acts of Mercy with your donors’ kindness for additional impact.
Hearing “thank you” from a person that is impacted by the donor’s generosity is very, very powerful—so let the donor see and feel their generosity in action.
Make Sure Your Staff Also Has the Opportunity to Experience the Ministry Impact.
Ministry interactions shouldn’t be reserved only for your donors. If your staff hasn’t visited the ministries first-hand, load everyone up for a field trip and take them on a tour too. They’ll have their own experiences to relay to donors with passion and enthusiasm—and this will blend into the stewardship efforts.
Bring Touchstone to Mission Moments to Donors.
Not everyone can visit a ministry because of time, distance, or other factors. But there are ways to provide touchstone to mission moments by bringing people and their stories directly to your donors.
Twelve years ago I attended a Board of Directors meeting for an inner city school where 90% of the students lived below the poverty level and affording basic necessities were a challenge for most families. A nine year old girl bravely stood in front of the Board and explained that she wore hearing aids. When the aid batteries died her family couldn’t afford to replace them so she was living in an inaudible world. The Board members, some of the school’s biggest donors, listened with tears in their eyes as the little girl thanked them for giving her hearing back. The story set the tone for the meeting and the Board’s future decisions—and their bond with the schoolchildren was stronger than ever. It was an incredible touchstone to mission moment.
If you don’t already bring mission moments to your donors (including your Board members), start today!
Use Infographics to Explain How the Donor’s Dollars Make a Difference.
A study conducted by Paul Martin Lester (Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication) stated that we remember 80% of what we see, 20% of what we read, and only 10% of what we hear. This means that most people learn better through pictures and other visual elements than through words.
Using infographics can translate complex data into easy-to-understand bites and can be more memorable. The graphics can also affect emotions faster than text. Never shy away from the powerful images, charts, and data that can convey the donor’s dollars at work.
Still unsure? Consider that infographics can easily be shared on social media networks in their entirety—another awesome stewardship advantage!
Make a Video with Staff or Beneficiaries Showing Their Appreciation.
Video technology has enabled us to easily show and tell thanks to our donors. It doesn’t need to be fancy and expensive, especially if you have access to individuals with a creative side.
Recently I’ve been watching some religious sisters in Uganda make short videos of their work. Their donors can directly link their donations to the good works, even if they can’t be in Uganda working alongside the sisters. And it helps to see the smiling faces of the sisters too.
Learn the technology (or find someone that can help) and start sharing appreciation videos.
Make or Give a Unique Item.
When I worked with a group of missionaries, they would bring back handmade items from foreign locales which would then be gifted to donors as a thank you. From blankets to bracelets to artwork, the donors loved receiving the unique items with a brief bio of the person they helped but would otherwise never have had the chance to meet. It brought the ministries and people to life.
I also know a monk that walks the private property at his Abbey. Along the way he’ll pick up sticks from the trees, which he turns into crucifixes to gift to donors. They are amazing works of art and one-of-a-kind—and quite the conversation piece. Donors are truly touched since the crosses are so personal, prayerfully made by hand, and come from land they consider very holy.
By making and giving unique items that donors cannot purchase elsewhere, organizations can leave a lasting impression with mission-focused gifts at a minimal cost.
Recognize Milestone Events and Holidays.
Send cards for birthdays, anniversaries, get well soon, birth of a grandchild, holidays, and other significant milestones, etc. Be sure that the cards are hand-signed, especially when coming from the Leadership Team and/or primary connection to your organization. You would do this for your friends and family, why not your donors too?
Become a Stewardship Planner.
Draft a stewardship plan with specific initiatives and timeframes. Begin by reviewing the programs and services that your organization already does on a day-to-day basis and then ask yourself, “Is there an opportunity to layer on a stewardship initiative?”
Invite a donor to morning mass or to a feast day prayer service. Extend an invitation to join the Leadership Team for dinner and learn about an upcoming campaign. Treat donors as “insiders.” Put yourself in the donor’s shoes and listen to how they want to be involved then plan around their expectations.
Whatever you do, be accountable. Document your progress along the way and set monthly goals to connect with donors on a personal level.
Not sure where to start with a stewardship plan? Reflect on the following questions to help drive donor interactions:
- The single, most important thing that we must communicate about our organization is…
- This story is how we make a difference through our organization and in our communities…
- After meeting a staff member/Board member a donor should walk away knowing…
- When thinking about our organization, a donor should feel/experience…
- Six weeks after talking with a donor I would like that individual to remember…
- If sharing that story/experience with others, I would like that individual to share…
The Secret to Meaningful Donor Relationships is Through Good Stewardship Practices!
Strive to become the “go to” person within your organization...the person a donor calls first when they have a question or a problem. Think of yourself as the organization’s guardian, trying to help donors whenever and wherever possible.
The best fundraising advice I ever received? Get out from behind my desk and thank donors personally and in ways that reflect the organization’s mission. If you build a reputation for caring and being responsive to your donors, you will also ensure relationships continue with your organization.
Remember to thank a donor everyday…it is good for the donor and it’s good for your soul too!