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4 Tips to Elevate Your Donor Stewardship Strategy

Your nonprofit likely invests considerable energy and resources into attracting potential donors and strengthening existing donor relationships as part of a comprehensive donor stewardship strategy. When you’re trying to reach a new audience, it often feels like a secured donation represents a fundraising finish line.

However, a single donation is far from the end goal. A sustainable fundraising strategy considers a new donation as the start of a race rather than the end. The day a new donor makes a gift to your nonprofit should be the first step in a long and mutually beneficial relationship. This approach ensures that donors feel valued and are more likely to continue supporting your cause in the future.

The Role of Stewardship in Strong Donor Relationships

Donor stewardship is cultivating a long-term relationship with a donor after they have given to your organization. Often, stewardship is considered a cyclical process that encourages donors to stay involved and increase giving over time. Since a strong donor relationship is built on connection rather than contributions, a thoughtful stewardship strategy will drive your mission forward in good times and bad.

To effectively cultivate better donor relationships as part of your donor stewardship strategy, you should:

  • Understand and respond to supporters
  • Provide a variety of engagement opportunities
  • Use supporter data to craft more effective communications
  • Revisit your donor recognition policy

Throughout these efforts, your goal is to help donors feel connected and committed to your mission. This will help build relationships with your community, boost your donor retention rate, and improve the likelihood of raising more funds. Plus, it’s simply more cost-effective to retain existing donors than to attract new ones.

1. Understand and Respond to Supporters

Throughout all of your stewardship efforts, remember that you’re trying to establish a genuine relationship rather than string together a series of transactions. While you need donations to pursue your mission, try to let fundraising take a backseat to an emotional connection. Donors want your organization to treat them as people, not piggy banks.

An individualized and responsive fundraising approach can help you increase generosity and donor retention.

It’s essential to respond to the needs of each individual donor rather than simply treating them all as an impersonal whole. To do so, you’ll need to listen carefully to supporters directly and indirectly. Consider implementing social listening strategies to keep track of and engage with public discussions related to your organization’s activities and impact. For a more hands-on approach, send surveys to supporters to gain insights into what attracted them to your organization and to understand their preferred ways of engaging with your cause.

Later in this article, we will discuss how to apply this knowledge by integrating personalization techniques into your marketing and communication strategies.

2. Reinforce Donor Relationships With Engagement Opportunities

Building meaningful relationships with donors involves connecting on a personal level rather than a transactional one. As such, it’s important to offer ongoing community interaction and non-financial engagement opportunities.

First, consider how you might foster one-to-one or small-group relationships with and among supporters. For major donors, make sure you have a plan to cultivate long-lasting relationships with regular conversations about their impact. Every so often, someone from your organization should reach out to check in with major donors, either with an in-person meeting or a phone call.

However, for larger organizations that have numerous mid-level and small donors, personally calling each one is probably impractical. Instead, you could provide platforms for your donors to interact and unite over their shared support for your organization. Hosting special events, which can be virtual, such as happy hours or tours of your facility, can foster a sense of community among donors.

Additionally, it’s helpful to offer ways for your supporters to give back to your organization that don’t require any monetary support, such as:

  • Volunteering: Encourage supporters to donate their time and skills to your organization through volunteer opportunities. Suggest volunteer opportunities to supporters based on what you know about their interests and experiences.

    For example, you might contact supporters who made financial gifts toward last year’s holiday toy drive to help you sort and deliver this year’s presents. You may also consider virtual volunteering ideas for supporters to contribute time while in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
  • In-kind donations:
    While the specific items on your wishlist will vary widely depending on the nature of your mission, most nonprofits have some need for in-kind donations.

    For example, you may encourage supporters to donate gently used coats for your homeless shelter. Or, if you’re planning an upcoming raffle or auction, invite supporters to donate desirable items to be included in the lineup.

On top of these, you can also help supporters become aware of opportunities to support your organization financially without needing to make another gift. Corporate philanthropy programs such as matching gifts and volunteer grants allow supporters to leverage their existing contributions for an even bigger impact.

3. Use Supporter Data to Craft More Effective Communications

Knowing and understanding your supporters starts with data. Your nonprofit has access to a wealth of information about the demographics of your supporters as well as how, when, and where they prefer to engage with your organization.

Ideally, all of this information should be collected and organized in your responsive nonprofit CRM, which will make it easy to find and use the data to inform your various fundraising efforts.

Leveraging the information in your donor database enables you to take a responsive approach to fundraising and strengthen relationships by incorporating the learnings about donors into your communications, specifically your email marketing.

By using supporter information in your donor database to craft more compelling emails, you increase the likelihood that recipients will find the messages relevant, interesting, and worthy of further engagement. A customized email is a responsive tool to strengthen relationships with donors and build deeper connections, while an impersonal mass email (like one addressed to “Dear Friend”) could potentially work against you.

Consider the following ways in which you could leverage supporter information for more effective communication:

  • Segmentation:
    Donor segmentation is dividing your supporter base into groups based on selected criteria. For example, you may create donor segments such as first-time donors, donors who attended a recent event, or donors who often participate in volunteer opportunities. Then, you’ll be better equipped to speak to the impact of each group or invite them to engage in a way that aligns with their past involvement.
  • Personalization:
    You can integrate your data on supporters into your email communications for a more compelling message. For instance, including a supporter’s name in the email subject can lead to an open rate of up to 50% higher. You can also take it further by referencing other data, such as a recent gift amount.

Emails that make use of these strategies help supporters feel more engaged with your organization, ultimately leading to longer-term support. However, personalized emails require a strong foundation of supporter data and a responsive tech stack in order to be feasible, so start off by making sure you have that infrastructure in place.

4. Revisit Your Donor Recognition Policy

Donors who give to your organization will be far more likely to continue donating if they understand how vital they are to your mission. A core part of your donor stewardship strategy should be appreciating and recognizing donors at all levels.

First, thanking your donors is a critical step to ensure a first-time donation is the start of a strong relationship rather than a one-time action. Donors who receive a thank-you message within 48 hours of their gift are 4x as likely to make another contribution in the future.

Next, a robust donor recognition policy helps ensure your longtime supporters feel appreciated and impactful. It helps your organization connect with them on a deeper level. This policy should be consistent, appropriate, and appreciative. With a clearly defined policy, all gifts can be recognized in a meaningful way.

You’ll want to take the following into account when creating your donor recognition strategy:

  • What do you know about your donors’ motivations for giving to your organization?
  • How can you most effectively recognize different types of donors?
  • How can you recognize donors in a meaningful way yet also proportionate to their contribution?
  • Should the acknowledgment be private or public?
  • Do you need additional resources or expertise to execute the strategy?
  • How will you recognize cumulative giving, if at all?

In these questions, you’ll see a focus on customizing the recognition to suit both the donor and the size of their donation. For instance, a prominent position on a donor recognition wall is fitting for a major or planned gift. In contrast, a modest donation might be more appropriately acknowledged with a simpler gesture of appreciation, such as a branded sticker. This approach reinforces the concept that donor stewardship should be a personalized process.

A Donor Stewardship Strategy Has Long-Term Benefits on Donor Relationships

To sum up, a responsive donor stewardship strategy will have long-term benefits on donor relationship-building. By leveraging insights from your nonprofit CRM to personalize your interactions and communication with donors, provide engagement opportunities, and recognize donors in meaningful ways, you’ll strengthen the commitment each donor has to your mission.

About the Author

Aly Sterling is the founder of Aly Sterling Philanthropy. Her expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute.

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