DIY Donor Stewardship: A comprehensive stewardship plan

DIY Donor Stewardship: A step-by-step comprehensive stewardship plan you can totally do

December 4, 2023
6 minutes
A checklist with hearts instead of checkboxes! All in pink and purple with a gold background - so cute!

Donor stewardship is the process of cultivating and nurturing donor relationships to ensure their long-term support and engagement. Period. It involves creating personalized communication strategies, expressing gratitude, and demonstrating the impact of your donors' contributions. Donor stewardship planning is crucial for nonprofit organizations as it helps retain donors, increase donor loyalty, and secure sustainable funding for the organization's programs and initiatives.

Your donor stewardship plan: Why it's important

A donor stewardship program is like the secret weapon in a nonprofit's arsenal. It's the game plan that helps build long-lasting relationships with donors, ensuring their continued support. With a well-thought-out plan, nonprofits can retain major donors, turn first-time donors into evangelists, and improve donor retention rates.

So, what's the magic behind a solid donor stewardship program? It's all about making donors feel valued and appreciated. This means designing personalized outreach, understanding your current donor communications preferences, and showing them the impact of their contributions.

Your donor stewardship plan: What should nonprofits know

Donor stewardship isn't just about money; it's about building a dynamic community. By implementing a donor stewardship plan, nonprofits can turn one-time donors into major donors, encourage loyal donors to give more, and create a meaningful community. So, how can you make it happen?

As Julie Ordoñez told us on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast,

Don't limit yourself to just focusing on money—this isn't actually about money. This is about changing the world.

So, how can you make your donor stewardship plan a reality? Segment your donors based on gift size, frequency, or any other factor that tickles your fancy. Tailor your communication to each segment, showing them the impact of their contributions through personalized updates. And don't be shy about engaging donors in donor stewardship activities, like special events or fundraising campaigns.

Remember, a strong donor retention rate is the name of the game. So, focus on building personal connections for increasing impact. 

Listen to Julie and David discuss the importance of courage and character in donor cultivation:

4 benefits of implementing a comprehensive donor stewardship plan

The benefits of donor stewardship are narrow but deep; both for your donor base at a core level and individual donors at a personal level, donor stewardship effort bring your mission home. For your nonprofit, it's all about contributing to overall fundraising goals and converting one-time donations into major gifts or even annual donors.

Donor Engagement

For your donors, a solid donor stewardship plan nurtures a sense of belonging and deepens their emotional connection to your cause. They become more engaged, inspired, and eager to contribute, resulting in increased giving. On the flip side, your nonprofit organization enjoys enhanced donor retention rates, the lifeblood of sustainable fundraising.

Recurring Growth

When it comes to donor stewardship, the ideal is to create a foundation of long-term, loyal donors who actively support your cause and contribute regularly. And that, friends, sounds a whole lot like recurring membership subscriptions. Recurring growth is an important benefit of establishing a successful donor stewardship plan; not only does regular giving increase the overall amount of donations received, but it also creates a sense of security for both parties.

And BTW, recurring often benefits donors as well—being able to remain an ongoing source of support even though they can't give as much each time is a choice that donors are increasingly gravitating toward.

Depth of Brand 

You know what else benefits from more developed communications and content? Your brand. 

As you build donor stewardship strategies—specifically with targeted segments like major donors in mind—your messaging, visuals, and cadence are solidified and strengthened, making for a more consistent experience for donors and faster, cleaner process for your team.


You know what's better than loyal donors? More loyal donors. 

Successful donor stewardship efforts, which lead to more engaged donors, are a direct line from prospective donors to donating supporters. Whether it's a peer-to-peer fundraiser, a major donor, or just your garden-variety evangelist, donor cultivation plants its seeds deep.

DIY: Donor stewardship step by step

To create an effective donor stewardship plan, nonprofits should consider key elements such as donor segmentation, regular communication, and stewardship activities. By segmenting donors based on factors like gift size or frequency, nonprofits can tailor their communications to each donor segment. Regular updates through channels they prefer, like emails or impact reports, show donors their contributions truly make a difference. And engaging donors with stewardship activities, like inviting them to special events or involving them in fundraising campaigns, helps build stronger relationships.

  1. Get to know your donors
  2. Capture your donors' attention
  3. Expand your gratitude
  4. Encourage feedback from your donors
  5. Track your success

Step 1: Know Thy Donors

Get cozy with your donor database and segment your supporters based on common traits. Break 'em down by average gift size—major donors vs. mid-level donors vs. other donor levels , donation frequency, communication preferences, and even whether they give from their mobile device, a desktop, or direct mail. This step helps you understand who your donors are so you can craft personalized experiences.

Step 2: Engage and Captivate

Entice your donors with exciting stewardship activities. Host donor appreciation events, craft epic storytelling campaigns, or even send them on virtual adventures (we love scavenger hunts!) Infuse your donor experiences with wit and personality. Remember, it's okay to have fun while making an impact!

Step 3: Show the Love

Don't just thank your donors once and move on! Continuously express gratitude, sharing the impact of donors' contributions. Send personalized updates, provide public recognition in your annual reports, or deliver handwritten cards that demonstrate how each and every donor has made a difference. Make donor love a habit!

Step 4: Cultivate Lasting Love

Build long-lasting relationships by nurturing donor feedback. Infuse your donor relations with donor surveys to understand your donors' experiences and preferences. Use this feedback to improve your stewardship efforts and tailor future engagement, and pretty soon, this year's potential donors will be next year's major donors.

Step 5: Measure and Iterate

If you're not celebrating your success, what even are you doing?! Track key performance indicators like donor retention rate and gift size. Analyze what's working and what needs improvement. Adapt your donor stewardship plan accordingly, always striving to create meaningful relationships with your supporters.

And allow your donor stewardship team to actually use that data—90% of nonprofits collect data, but only 5% use that data to make decisions. Don't let your data go to waste!

Donor Stewardship Template

Now that you've seen the step-by-step, you're probably thinking, "Ok, easier said than done, person typing it all out." Fair. Fair. So, let's take the example of a nonprofit organization that wants to implement a donor stewardship plan. Here's a template that you can take away today. Reminder: The key elements of this plan are communication, recognition, and personalization.

Three Segments

  • Giving Levels
  • Donation History
  • Communication Preferences

Communication Strategy

  • Monthly Email Updates
  • Post-donation Thank-you Notes
  • Quarterly Personalized Messages
  • Ad-hoc Outreach and Special Recognition

Stewardship Team

Their job: ensure all donors receive timely and meaningful interactions.

Donor Management Software

You need some way to track donor interactions, preferences, and key dates such as birthdays or anniversaries—and don't even mention Excel in our presence. No.

Fundraising Events

  • Peer-to-peer Fundraising Campaigns
  • In-person Events 
  • Virtual Get-togethers
  • Hybrid Fundraisers

But get creative here; anything that allows donors to see the impact of their contributions firsthand, such as site visits or volunteer opportunities is going to benefit these strong relationships.

Annual/Impact Reports

At least once yearly, but with quarterly highlights in your personalized messages (see above!) to showcase the outcomes and achievements made possible by donor support.

Donor Stewardship Ideas

The following donor stewardship ideas can help you create a robust donor stewardship plan that anyone can implement.

• Create a personalized thank-you campaign for each donor that includes handwritten cards, phone calls, and emails with updates about how their donation has made an impact. (Yes, it seems like a lot. But if you spread it out over the course of a year, stagger according to their first-donation anniversary, and automate as much as possible, this is a killer fundraising strategy.)

• Host virtual or hybrid fundraising events to bring your community together. 

• Offer volunteer opportunities so donors can see the results of their contribution firsthand.

• Use donor surveys to gain insight into donor preferences and how they would like to be acknowledged. Then, and this is key, implement changes based on that feedback and keep your donor community updated.

• Create a recognition program for top donors that offers unique experiences and thank-you gifts.

Your donor stewardship process: Best practices

Here are your don't-forgets: To ensure that your donor stewardship process is effective, follow the best practices outlined below.

  1. Use the tools you already have. We're specifically talking about your donor database, reporting tools, and communications features. 
  2. Set more than just financial goals. Donor retention, recurring growth, and peer-to-peer fundraisers are some numbers you should be tracking. 
  3. Implement change. Whether it's a result of your own testing and efforts or feedback from supporters, don't let your hard-won results fall fallow.
  4. Make it fun for donors. Not every mission is "fun". But providing fulfilling engagement opportunities that donors see as a positive experience is doable for every nonprofit professional. It'll make things easier on your team as well.

Donor stewardship plans: FAQs

What effect will a donor stewardship plan have?

When implemented correctly, donor stewardship efforts can have several positive effects on an organization: Deeper relationships with supporters, a major donor program, increased recurring members, and a more developed sense of what makes your donors tick. 

What resources will a donor stewardship plan require?

At a minimum, donor stewardship efforts require someone dedicated to the plan (or a team if you can swing it), communication tools, reporting features, and lots of patience.

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