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  • Got the Donor Blues? Stewardship and Donor Relations

There’s a phenomenon, a wave of charity and compassion that greets cataclysmic events and earth shattering tragedies. The torrent of giving that follows a crisis or disaster fills the databanks of nonprofits with new benefactors. But all too often this groundswell of emotional response is lost soon thereafter. Could this brief moment of enthusiastic generosity and feel-good emotion be harnessed to keep this active altruism alive?

This is where the concept of stewardship comes in. Donor stewardship is the continuing connection with a donor after a gift has been made and is closely related to (but not the same as) donor relations. Both stewardship and donor relations are keys in the all-important concept of donor retention.





At its core level, effective stewardship means keeping donors up-to-date with the difference their donations are making to the progress of the cause they’ve supported. Stewardship is about establishing the trust of donors in the credibility and honesty of the organizations where they contribute.

Stewardship activities demonstrate that a charity has used the gift as the donor envisioned. In this way, stewardship fulfills donors’ expectations as spelt out in the Donor Bill of Rights: The organization’s mission, how donated resources will be used, and of its ability to use donations as planned.

Donor relations

Donor relations are about presenting the organization in a manner that inspires generosity from prospects and supporters. Donor relations are concentrated on donors and prospects rather than on the donations. The starting point for donor relations is the mission and strategy and can take the form of private conversations or public pronouncements.

According to Giving USA’s 2020 report, charitable giving by individual Americans increased 4.2% in 2019. It’s time nonprofits get serious about donor relations and stewardship, nurturing every individual supporter.

Focus on individual donors

Results of the Nonprofit Research Collaborative (NRC) survey, of February 2014, saw sixty-two percent (62%) of the respondents reporting a rise in fundraising income in 2013. Of these nonprofits, a large percentage attributed the increase to cultivating potential donors and keeping existing donors up-to-date.

Stewardship requires hard work and good planning but savvy nonprofits know that by focusing on individual donors, they can surpass their fundraising targets. This ongoing relationship with a benefactor after a donation has been made can lead to a major gift. The concept is simple; it’s easier and more cost effective to get an existing donor to donate again than it is to go out seeking new prospects.

What do your donors want?

For stewardship to be effective, it should be based on what donors want. In the busy day-to-day of a charity, the average gift will be logged on the database, the check banked, a form ‘thank-you’ letter sent, and the donor added to the mailing list. That’s the easy way.

But here’s where there may be problem with stewardship and donor relations impacting on donor retention. Donors tend to get ignored until the nonprofit is looking for more money. How would you feel if a new friend you’d helped out, never invited you for coffee, never sent you an email, or didn’t call to thank you for a gift? (Also read Chasing Donors Away? Annoying Tactics Nonprofits Use)

We need to be reminding our supporters about their emotional connections to our mission. What made them give to our cause originally? Once a new donor gives, it’s up to the nonprofit to switch up the negligible relationship into a true long term connection.

Traditionally, the number of people who only give once, can be as high as eight out of every ten new donors. That a huge percentage of possible donors lost! Clearly there’s something lacking in the management of the potential resources represented by that database.

Don’t let donors fall through the cracks

Donors are people too, they have feelings and ideas with likes and dislikes and they respond when treated like people. Donors give for the same reasons as everyone else because they want to make a difference and we should be paying more attention to their point of view.

Ask donors what they think. Not just when asking for money but with non-ask exchanges too; a radical approach to be sure, but one that could pay big dividends. Look at strategies for getting supporters engaged more deeply with the cause.

Most organizations would be very unlikely to overlook a significant contributor, but what about the smaller donors? Here’s where having a strategy for small and mid-level donors can really pay off. Consider group coffee mornings or lunches. Have a newsletter aimed specifically at new donors.

Keep donors informed of the difference their donations are making. Whether it’s a quick email about a success or news about the problem your charity addresses, updates are always valued by donors. Don’t wait until money is needed to contact your donors. Get feedback from supporters as to how often they’d want to receive progress updates and other news, and then follow up appropriately.

Connecting the organizations’ work to real people and stories helps donors better understand the kind of impact they can make with their gifts. And the more they feel connected, the better the opportunity for larger donations in the future.

Current donors epitomize the best prospects for future gifts while new supporters represent an untapped resource for your organization. Using the basics of stewardship and donor relations, your existing donors and new supporters can become the lifeblood of your charity.

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