Equitable Donor Stewardship + Relationship Building = Success

Equitable Donor Stewardship + Relationship Building in a Post-COVID World

December 25, 2023
8 minutes
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Donor stewardship took the backseat for many organizations as fundraising efforts shifted drastically during the pandemic. Now, years past the start of the COVID-19 outbreak and facing a crisis in giving, nonprofits are looking to reoptimize their efforts once again.

Yet, at the same time, there's also been a movement of organizations away from stewardship initiatives. Sure, it's nice to provide key contributors with a positive donor journey from the beginning that emphasizes continued support in the long term. After all, it's true that you likely wouldn't be able to fulfill your mission and serve your community in the first place without generous donor funding.

But could now be the time to expand your focus to more than just donations?

This article will provide a brief overview of donor stewardship as a concept, a few of the most significant concerns regarding stewardship, and what we can do to elevate equitable practices in the future. In the end, you can make your own decisions about what that will look like with your organization and its team.

Let's dive in.

What Is Donor Stewardship? The Basics

Donor stewardship is a nonprofit practice dedicated to engaging an organization's supporters post-donation. For many fundraisers, the idea is to establish and develop long-lasting relationships with these individuals—in hopes that they ultimately decide to continue supporting your cause.

A few common examples of stewardship include:

  • Targeted donation follow-up emails
  • Handwritten gift acknowledgment letters
  • Personal thank-you phone calls
  • Exclusive donor appreciation events
  • Donor anniversary messages
  • Holiday greetings
  • Behind-the-scenes facility tours
  • Nonprofit newsletters depicting recent success stories

You get the point—donor stewardship is basically any interaction an organization has with its existing donors that is not directly intended to solicit additional funding.

Stewardship has long been a focus of nonprofits and other fundraising organizations looking to better engage with financial contributors over long periods of time. However, many organizations are beginning to consider that (despite the substantial benefits) there might be potential negative implications of traditional stewardship strategies—and what that might mean for their causes.

Inequity in Donor Stewardship: Where We're Starting From

On the surface, donor stewardship can seem like a great idea. You want to thank the individuals who help make your work possible, and that's a good thing. But sometimes, prioritizing stewardship risks taking away from the nonprofit's mission as a whole.

Here's how:

1. Donor-centric versus community-centric fundraising

You've probably heard the old adages that support the vitality of donor stewardship—place the donor at the center of your story. The donor is the hero of your mission. Utilize more “you” phrasing than “I” or even “we.” Perhaps you even shared these ideas with your own team. And to a certain extent, they are true! However, organizations utilizing these practices run the risk of elevating what can be referred to as a “savior complex” among donors

The thing is, it's not necessarily “donor-centric fundraising versus community-centric fundraising,” but “donor-centric fundraising AND community-centric fundraising.” Most organizations will ultimately find that a combination of each strategy can bring huge successes in terms of donor engagement, revenue, and more. Aim to find a solid balance between acknowledging and appreciating donors while prioritizing the communities you serve.

2. Transactional donor relations

Another key component of the argument against donor stewardship is actually what stewardship had initially been aiming to overcome: transactional donor relationships.

Donors want to be seen as more than just a fundraising ATM or an otherwise monetary means to an end. So, over time, organizations have developed new ways to engage with their supporters without asking for additional funding. However, the ultimate goal of stewardship (whether underlying or outright) is often to keep donors happy in order to encourage more future gifts.

But fundraising, when done well, has the potential to be much more than that. Though many organizations struggle to locate the perfect balance, humanizing your donor relationships can help maintain lifelong supporters who want to work with your organization as you fill whatever gap your team aims to address. And it helps when your donors are just as passionate about your cause as you are!

Take it from an expert in funder relations, Sean Goode, ED of Choose 180, who talked to us about his philosophy toward philanthropy on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast.

I believe wholeheartedly that if you do great work and you do it in a meaningful way, that's transformational and not transactional: the two of you [donor and funder] can journey together with purpose.

Building Equitable Supporter Relationships Going Forward

So what can you do instead to avoid inequity and power imbalances in fundraising—and instead experience the significant benefits introduced by sincere stewardship efforts?

Consider these tips for developing positive, community-centric relationships with your organization's donors:

  1. Maintaining your clients' dignity
  2. Highlighting democratized corporate philanthropy
  3. Thanking all supporters
  4. Including donors in your community

1. Maintain the dignity of your organization's beneficiaries.

Nonprofit fundraisers know that telling a good story is one of the best ways to create emotional connections with donors and prospects. And when there's an emotional tie, people are more likely to open their wallets and give generously. It's why dramatized animal welfare fundraising ads do so well, utilizing heartbreaking imagery and moving anecdotes to coax large donations out of sympathetic viewers.

But it's one thing to show donors the beneficiaries of your mission, but it's another situation entirely to use people or animals as props to solicit fundraising. If your organization leverages success stories about your work, it's critical that you prioritize maintaining the dignity of your beneficiaries.

The good news is that it's wholly possible to do so! Some mission recipients will be glad to share their experiences with your organization in order to help your team better serve others like them. Just make sure you get enthusiastic consent (even if you're anonymizing it), using language and framing the story in a way that makes the individual feel comfortable and highlights how your work empowers them instead of how they came to need your services.

And you'll likely want to place beneficiaries at the center of the stories you tell rather than elevating the donor and their dollars. Trust a storytelling expert like Olga M. Woltman to prioritize emotions, empathy, and ethics with actionable advice on avoiding storytelling at the expense of your constituents.

Move with authenticity. Unflinching reality is more impactful than over-the-top theatrics.

2. Highlight democratized corporate philanthropy.

Corporate philanthropy is another leading source of funding for many nonprofit organizations. And although historically, the “top dogs” at a company are the ones making all the decisions on what to give, how much, and where it should go, new corporate giving initiatives are taking a more democratic approach to these questions.

Take workplace giving, for example. These programs are becoming increasingly popular as a subcategory of overall corporate philanthropy. In these efforts, a company's employees are placed directly in the center of their employers' giving. This empowers individuals to help dictate the amount the company gives and direct funding to their favorite charitable causes.

Now, when an employee donates to a nonprofit, the company matches the gift to essentially double the value of the individual's initial contribution. When a staff member volunteers with an organization, their employer provides the institution with a corresponding grant!

And when it comes to stewardship, workplace giving initiatives like matching gifts and volunteer grants enable organizations to diversify their corporate fundraising sources and better engage with the individuals who directed the funding their way.

3. Communicate gratitude to all of your nonprofit's supporters.

Another significant issue among donor stewardship efforts is the idea that major donors are treated as the top-tier priority, whereas smaller and mid-level donors are often swept under the rug.

For example, you might send out automated thank-you emails for gifts under a certain threshold—perhaps a few thousand dollars. But when an individual surpasses that point, your team is ready to pull out all the stops with handwritten notes of appreciation, personal phone calls, face-to-face meetings, and more. And those are great ways to communicate gratitude, and to a certain extent, it makes sense—your team probably doesn't have the capacity to really “wow” every donor.

And remember—you'll want to appreciate those supporters just as much, too!

4. Address donors as part of the community rather than its solution.

A key pillar of community-centric fundraising is the idea that it's not anti-donor fundraising. You're not trying to pretend your financial backers don't exist. The donor is just integrated into the community as a whole—and thus, is a part of community-centric stewardship as well.

This shifting of mindsets enables organizations to minimize the “us versus them” or “othering” ideas that are often seen in fundraising and donor engagement. It's important to keep in mind that the donor is not a separate entity that is swooping in to single-handedly fix a problem. They are a part of the solution while also being a part of the overall community. They benefit just like your clients—in their own ways.

To drive optimized fundraising, stewardship, and mission programming, you'll want to consider who is helping to empower your organization, and what kind of message you want to send with your campaigns. For example, be sure to prioritize fundraising efforts with individuals who support your nonprofit's vision as you work together to find a solution to the problem you face. In doing so, it will be easier and more natural to develop meaningful relationships with those whose visions already align with your mission.

Get back to the roots of fundraising and the inspiration behind your cause—and see where the two concepts intersect. The overlap found should be the base of your community-centric fundraising efforts!

So what does this all mean? As you organize and develop your nonprofit's fundraising plan for the future, we recommend first taking a step back. Consider how your donor stewardship efforts fit into your organization's mission and vision overall.

It's not a bad thing to steward your donors or even to highlight positive ways the assistance they've given has helped drive your organization toward its goals. But if you've allowed your funders' support to overshadow the real reason your nonprofit exists, you've likely gone too far.

What happens once you employ equitable engagement efforts?

Now for the exciting part: Once you employ equitable engagement efforts, you'll begin to see a deeper relationship between donors and your organization because equitable donor stewardship and relationship-building strategies prioritize trust and respect. 

Here are some of the concrete effects of an equitable approach to donor stewardship:

Your impact goes farther

Literally, what more could you ask for? Impact that reaches the people who actually need it. Whether you're working for the environment, human rights, animal activism, education, or something else, there are people affected. And if you're focusing on equity, the most vulnerable and in need will be touched.

Community voices are heard

Keeping in mind that people of the community are the ones who truly know the community's needs, those perspectives are the ones that need to be amplified. Equity in the donor stewardship process is precisely to uplift those voices.

Concepts like accessibility are prioritized

Imagine wanting to donate to a cause but being stymied by the giving experience. Imagine knowing there's a nonprofit organization that can help you but being unable to access the services. Equitable behavior will take care that these scenarios won't happen to your loyal donors or clients. 

Reports take identities and intersectionalities into account

Which do you think is a better annual report? One that provides information on your community's ages, ethnicities, genders, and more? Or an impact report that simply gives anonymous data? When your nonprofit can factor identities into impact, that impact is expanded (as we noted earlier), and the case for funding is made easier through a transparent donor stewardship strategy.

Donors recognize that they are but a piece of the puzzle

Might we say that sometimes we nonprofiteers underestimate donors? They believe in these causes, give of their time, talent, and treasure, and celebrate our impact. Our worry in moving them to the sidelines is just that: our worry. Effective donor stewardship produces opportunities for donors to support in new ways—ways that center the community.

Offer opportunities for your donors to get more involved

So we've talked about how equity benefits the donor experience, why it's good for your nonprofit, and generally how your organization can infuse equity into a solid donor stewardship plan, but now let's discuss actionable ways to increase that donor retention rate, build strong relationships, and saturate your donor cultivation cycle with engagement opportunities.

Knowing the community better ties them to your nonprofit

So... make sure they're not just giving from afar! Law for Black Lives does an amazing job of this by offering supporter orientations led by legal experts and staff, informational conventions driven by members of the community (that are simultaneously eye-opening and celebratory), and active—and interactive—communication channels.

Allow them to be a part of the impact instead of just giving

Often, when donors give, they're doing their best to be of service. It's easy to hit a donate button, but with a little extra effort and some fresh ideas, they can take greater ownership of the impact they're facilitating.

We're talking about volunteer opportunities besides staffing that fun run, checking in gala attendees, or organizing your donor management software. Stuff like helping foster animals, teaching youth, or planting trees. Sure, these examples are obvious things, but that's what we mean—your impact doesn't come in spectacular mic drop moments; it comes in the moments between special events. 

Sincerely ask for feedback—and listen

The type of donor feedback we're talking about is the kind that stems from donor loyalty—the tough love that comes from meaningful connections and strong relationships with donors. We suggest doing a few things:

  1. Donor segmentation
  2. Sending multiple donor surveys
  3. Acting on your donor base's advice

1. Donor segmentation

Monthly donors will have different feedback from your major donors. First-time donors will have a separate perspective from loyal supporters. Each donor segment will bring something new to the table, so don't lump them together in one bulk survey send.

2. Personalized—and regular—donor surveys

When we wrote "Sending multiple donor surveys," we realized that could mean a few different things. And we love dual meanings, so let's explain it both ways!

First, and the way we initially were thinking of it, is that if you're already going to segment donors, send them personalized surveys! Why not?! It'll make donor analytics easier, and you'll get actionable-er insights. You can even make the same survey but translate it into other mediums or languages to prioritize accessibility.

Alternatively, send multiple surveys over the year. Instead of sending one big survey that then requires you to make a bunch of changes at once, send one survey per quarter and work on incorporating one change at a time as result. That's the beauty of donor stewardship programs—it's not a race to the finish. 

3. Action!!

We've said it before in other articles, but the only way you can mess up a donor survey is by not taking action. If you ask for advice, you've got to be prepared to take action. And no, that doesn't mean you have to do everything your major gift donors say. It just means that a performative ask will affect your relationships with supporters. 

Stumbling blocks to equitable donor stewardship

Don't rush it

This isn't a race. Donor stewardship programs can stand the test of time. Use that time to establish a positive experience through your donor communications. 

Don't bite off more than you can chew

Yet another reason to take it slow: When nonprofits try to rush the personal touch, it falls flat. To really capture that magic, break down the stages of donor stewardship and provide consistent communication. 

Reminder: If it feels like a lot to you, imagine your donors being faced with that survey or big ask. Add in the accessibility factor, and it just makes sense to take smaller bites. 

Don't underestimate yourself

Yes, we just told you (twice!) to slow down. But we know you're stronger than you think, and as you build authentic relationships, your abilities will grow as well. Don't be afraid to take a step forward when the time is right. And don't take that step alone...

Don't try to do it all yourself

Friend, if you've been focusing on communication preferences or an effective donor stewardship plan as you read, let us refocus you: this is all about community. So, don't do this alone. Bring your community into the process, and consider letting your major donors, prospective donors, current donors, one-time donors, and entire donor database become part of that community.

And with that, we leave you with one final reminder: It's all about finding the perfect balance—with the ultimate solution being equity-focused donor stewardship efforts. Best of luck!

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