Step Away From the Plaque (And Get to Know Your Donors)

Recently, I found myself in a development team meeting with an age-old topic on the agenda: the annual stewardship plan. Our team leader for this meeting kicked off the conversation with a question: What would be the perfect stewardship piece to deliver to top donors this year?

I listened for a moment as other members of the team began to share ideas and reminders of items used in past years. And then it hit me. Right there, amid the conversation of framed photos and acrylic plaques:  we were going about this all wrong.

Like so many well-meaning stewardship plans, ours involved coordinating specific deliverables for donors ranging from hand-written letters, phone calls and, in this case, a pre-determined recognition piece delivered annually. The result: each donor within a particular level of giving would be treated and stewarded in the exact same way.

And this was precisely the problem.

Personalize your approach

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stewardship plans serve a purpose, and a good one: to establish guidelines that ensure donors receive the acknowledgement and appreciation they deserve (i.e. your donors should be receiving notes and phone calls). However, where we often miss the mark is when we attempt to turn stewardship, which at its best is meaningful and organic, into a hardline process, which is anything but organic. When Donor X receives the same letter, the same card, and the same acrylic plaque (I’m using this an example—we didn’t always send acrylic plaques!) as everyone else, we fail to steward Donor X in a way that is unique and genuine.

In other words, each of your donors possesses unique interests and motives for why they give and engage with your mission. Knowing this, why would we ever think that stewarding them without these interests and motives in mind would be a good idea? You wouldn’t send your grandmother the same Christmas gift as your best friend. So, why would you steward two completely different individuals in the same way? When we steward and cultivate our donors in ways that engage their individual interests, we are better able to connect them to our mission and deepen our relationships

Relationships first, donations second

When my team engaged these questions, we agreed that we needed a more intentional approach to our stewardship plan. And, while pieces like an annual plaque weren’t inherently bad ideas, they are more meaningful when they are delivered during a tour of Donor X’s favorite program or with a note about Donor X’s favorite team. We realized that, especially for our major donors, the stewardship process was going to look different for everyone.

The main takeaway: we need to stop spending energy trying to brainstorm what stewardship initiatives donors might like, and first take the time to learn what each of them loves.

board of directors

Lindsay Saunders

Lindsay Saunders is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) and National Robert W. Woodruff Fellow with more than 10 years of experience in non-profit leadership and development. Lindsay holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor and is currently completing her Masters degree at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business.

February 26, 2018

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