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The term stewardship covers the administration of gifts and the overseeing, protection and care of your relationship with a donor to strengthen and preserve that relationship over time.

Stewardship is important, as it ensures that the donor has a positive giving experience that will influence both future giving behaviour and what the donor will say about your institution to other prospective donors.

It is far more likely that an existing donor will give again than that a non-donor will begin giving. Every donation, regardless of its value, should be well stewarded.

Who is responsible for stewardship?

Everyone involved in the fundraising process and in the implementation of projects that have benefited from funds raised and who has benefited directly from funding shares responsibility for stewardship. All must be prepared to participate in stewardship activities.

It is particularly important that senior staff are prepared to spend time with major gift donors, who normally prefer to develop long-term relationships on a peer-to-peer basis rather than simply receive written updates about projects. If an institution has 1,000 donors, it is impossible for a single fundraiser to properly steward everyone and still recruit new donors, so stewardship must be a shared activity.

The stewardship process

Stewardship begins during the cultivation phase of fundraising.

During this phase, fundraisers develop an understanding of a prospect’s giving motivations and expectations around stewardship. A good fundraiser will gently manage the expectations of a prospect during the cultivation and solicitation process, both to ensure that they are compatible with the institution’s capacity to deliver and are proportionate to the size of gift.

For example, a modest donor giving £1,000 to support scholarships cannot expect a personal dinner with the vice-chancellor and monthly meetings with the scholarship programme director. However, the donor might expect an invitation to an annual scholarship prize giving, a written note of thanks from one of the scholars and a yearly report on the progress of the funded scholars.

It is important that, at the point of solicitation, both the fundraiser and the prospect have the same understanding of the level of stewardship that is appropriate. For larger gifts, gift acceptance and recognition agreements may be appropriate. For annual fund appeals, the appeal material should state up front the level of stewardship a donor might expect.

You might find it useful to set some internal stewardship guidelines. Start with the basic level of stewardship that donors at the entry level should expect (e.g., gift processed and receipted within five workings days, written thank you within seven working days, annual report via email, etc.). Develop bands of stewardship relating to different levels of giving. Naturally, these guidelines will be flexible, and many major donors will have their own ideas of how they want their relationship with your institution to develop. Having a set of guidelines will help you design appropriate stewardship strategies that you can fulfill with your limited resources.

Things you can do to make a donor feel valued

There are many things you can do to make donors feel valued. With a little imagination these can be adapted to different campaigns and institutions. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Process gifts efficiently and promptly. It reassures donors about your professional competence and helps donors manage their own personal finances efficiently.
  • Write thank you letters. These letters should be, not just automatically generated receipt letters, but handwritten letters from the beneficiaries of a project or letters that have been personally signed by a senior member of the institution.
  • Publicly acknowledge them as donors. Print their names in the alumni magazine, sports and arts programmes. Have their names running along the bottom of the scoreboards at sports matches. Put donor plaques on seat backs and book plates in new library books.
  • Name things after major donors. Naming opportunities include buildings, events, courses, research programme, staff posts and roads/pathways.
  • Invite them to events to hear more about your work, meet other donors and the beneficiaries of their generosity.
  • Take people to see them and update them on the good their donation is doing.
  • Send reports, updates, photographs and other items about the projects they are supporting. Don’t inundate them, but keep the information relevant and personal.
  • With your donor’s permission, publicise their generosity in the press or write to their employer to say how grateful you are for your donor’s support and advice.
  • Develop a special area of your website with project updates that can only be accessed by certain donors.
  • Remember and recognise events that are special to them, such as birthdays, promotions, weddings, religious/cultural celebrations, etc.
  • Ask them not just for their money but their expertise, advice and time.
  • Personalise communications as much as you can, even if it is as simple as attaching a handwritten note to a project report.
  • Let your donors hear directly from people they have helped, so give them opportunities to interact with students, academic staff and other beneficiaries.

Let technology help you

Your communications with donors should be frequent enough to maintain momentum in the relationships. Technology can help you.

For example, you can:

  • Schedule regular reports to donors that are populated with statistics gathered automatically from projects
  • Include regular touch points in your annual calendar
  • Set up reminders to contact donors at regular intervals or when special anniversaries are coming up
  • Segment your database to generate guest lists for stewardship events

In the section that follows on data management, we look at how databases are used to help automate stewarding tasks. The more you can automate stewarding tasks, the easier it will be to handle a large volume of donors.

A well-stewarded donor will retain a high level of warmth toward an institution and is more likely to give larger or more frequent gifts and to maintain a relationship with an institution for a long time. Investment in stewardship is an important component of a sustainable fundraising activity.