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Stewardship: Showing Donors Accountability

Accountability is all about answering to those who have invested their trust, faith, and money in you. Nonprofits must be accountable to multiple stakeholders, including private and institutional donors, local, state, and federal agencies, volunteers, program recipients, and the public at large. Everyone who works for a nonprofit, whether as a paid staff member or a volunteer board director, has a role to play in ensuring the organization is answerable to its constituents. In addition to donor trust and financial/regulatory compliance, stewardship is one of the other main components of accountability.

A common mistake is not having a plan which results in a haphazard stewardship approach. Instead, make a plan to consistently steward your supporters throughout the year (not just as an afterthought when they make a gift). Your plan should include ways to steward your supporters creatively and often. There are many wonderful ways to do this without negatively impacting your budget and the payoff is well worth it.

Chances are that there are some donors who support your cause because of a personal connection with your mission, and would continue to support your organization no matter what kind of thanks they get from you. The majority of supporters however, not only want to see their contribution do good in the world, but also wouldn’t mind getting the occasional extra thanks or recognition for their philanthropic generosity. Taking a donor for granted can be a terrible mistake for fundraisers to make, so don’t do it! Thanking a donor after they are already upset is much too late, you must cultivate the relationship with them from the very beginning and keep stewarding them as they continue their support over the years. The best way to do this is with a well planned, ongoing stewardship program that will make them feel appreciated and understand their impact throughout the year.

First, determine who your best supporters currently are. Use queries to see who your biggest donors are from this year (single large gifts this year), who has been giving consistently over the course of several years (large cumulative gift totals), and who seems to be at every event your organization does (steadfast supporters). These people are the tried and true supporters who likely have a strong affinity for your organization because of a personal experience that connects them with your mission. These are the people you absolutely don’t want to take for granted, and are an important part of your constituency. Also, pay close attention to newer supporters who show their support by volunteering, interacting with your organization through your social media outlets, and consistently attending events. Flag these people in your database for easy identification. This can be done with a constituent code, constituent attribute, or even donor category. Once you can easily flag them in The Raiser’s Edge, it is much easier to control and plan out stewardship activities for them. After you have any stewardship interaction with them, record that as an action (single or part of a stewardship action track) on their constituent record.

Host a “Thank You” event to get to know them! You should be hosting a reception for them at least once a year if not more. Tailor the formality of these events to be appropriate for the group you are stewarding, and offer something that would interest them, like a behind-the-scenes tour of your facility or a guest speaker. Be sure to have a greeter at the door to provide name-tags to them as they arrive. This is so that as you make the rounds at the event and greet them personally, you can start associating faces with names. This is an opportunity to introduce yourself to them and share with them your passions regarding your org’s mission. A friendly chat, handshake and genuine smile from you will go a long way to help them remember you while also helping you to recognize them at future events. You remembering their name and face, or better yet, their personal reason for supporting your organization will resonate with them for a very long time.

Thank them over the phone! Don’t let the only calls you make to them be fundraising or major gift calls. Sometimes just receiving a short call for the sole purpose of thanking them after a gift can be a very refreshing surprise. Don’t do all the talking, be sure you take the time to ask them why they support your org and really listen to their story. Specific info such as why they care about your mission could be a great note to add to your actions. For example, when I worked in animal welfare, I would always ask donors to share their pet stories with me. I took great pride in being able to recall details about their pets when running into them later, and it certainly left a wonderful impression on them and showed that we cared about their experiences. If they don’t answer the phone, be sure to leave a brief but appreciate voicemail just to say “thank you”.

Thank them in person! If they can’t come to you, go to them! If a good supporter is unable to attend an event, offer to pay them a visit at their convenience. I once had a very valuable monthly donor who was confined to an assisted living community who could never make it to my receptions, so I called him up and asked him if I could visit him. A colleague and myself dropped by for what was supposed to be a quick visit, but ending up staying for over an hour as he entertained us with several stories from his youth. The experience was incredibly gratifying and was mutually enjoyable for us and him. I continued stewarding other home-bound donors that way, even offering to bring a therapy pet (where allowed) with me to make the experience more rewarding for them and drive the mission further home.

Thank them by mail! For example, near the end of the calendar year, consider sending out “Thanksgiving” cards in lieu of specific holiday cards. The end of the year is a great time to reflect on the things that they helped you accomplish with their support, and make them feel special. You should also keep a stack of thank you cards at your desk to send out weekly “just because” thank you cards (record as actions to avoid duplication). Strive to send out at least one handwritten thank you card each week at a minimum. No matter what, just be sure to thank them more than just once with a mail-merged letter after they make a gift, even if only to add a personal handwritten comment on the acknowledgement letter. If you take the time to appreciate these supporters, their giving experience will be enriched and they will continue to support your mission year in and year out.

In the end, good stewardship implies that an organization is using donated dollars wisely. A nonprofit that demonstrates such accountability is responding to those who have invested their trust, faith, and money in that organization.

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