Stu on Stewardship: Part 1 – Stewardship Basics

Mar 8, 2018

A guy walks into a bar. The bartender directs him across the hotel lobby to the conference center, where the guy finds the local monthly luncheon of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). He is this month’s speaker on the topic of Stewardship Basics.

The guy is ushered to his seat at the head table, enjoys his luncheon – seasoned chicken breast, rice pilaf, vegetable medley – and chitchats with some others at the table. When the time comes, he takes the podium.

“Thank you so very much for coming to this session today. As a member of AFP myself, I know how hard it is to make the time, and I really appreciate it.”

“My understanding is that everyone here paid $30 for today’s program. Non-members – I see a few you out there – paid $40. You should know that – with more than 150 people here today – that your registration fees covered the cost of the lunches and my speaker’s fee, with some funds left over if the program committee needs them subsidize, shall we say, a less popular topic.”

“In addition, I want to recognize Wells Fargo, for their $250 sponsorship. Donna, from Wells Fargo, is seated at Table 6, and she would love to speak with any of you interested in some new banking products they have rolled out for the non-profit community.”

“Let me provide you all with some further information. The chicken lunches cost about $15 per person; in addition, 16 of you ordered the vegetarian option which cost only $11 per person. My fee, which is normally $2000, I cut to $600 since I’m a member of this organization, so that comes down to about $4 per person. Staff time for coordinating this entire event, including the email invitation, setting up the online registration form, monitoring registrations, dealing with this lovely hotel, printing and managing name badges, working the registration table, and wrapping up, came to about $900. So, while total revenue for this event was a little more than $4700, expenses came in at under $3800, providing a surplus of some $900 for other AFP chapter needs.”

“Thank you again for attending this afternoon’s session. Have a great rest of your day.” And with that, the guy stepped down, shook some hands, and left.

For those in the audience wondering when he was going to talk about Stewardship Basics, they missed the actual stewardship basics that he wove into his brief comments:

Stewardship Basics:

  1. First and foremost, thank the donor for their contribution. In addition, and if appropriate, recognize the donor, if they wish to be recognized
  2. Confirm for them / assure them that their contribution was used – or will be used – as they intended
  3. Furnish them with specific information about how their contribution was or will be used
  4. All of this should be done with a foundation of transparency

Thank the Donor

Stewardship Basic #1: Proactively thank a donor for their contribution. The very definition of stewardship is the responsibility for the management of resources. In fundraising, a foundational key to managing financial resources is to ensure the renewability of those resources by demonstrating gratitude, expediently and effectively.

The thank-you communication should be delivered quickly, should be genuine, and should provide basic confirmation that the gift will be used as the donor intended. Typically, for contributions with determinable value (including pledges and other commitments), the amount of the contribution should be confirmed.

These days, more and more donors are making contributions via websites, with such sites providing immediate receipts electronically. These, if nothing else, confirm that the contribution was received. Many organizations will follow-up with a more sincere acknowledgment, reconfirming donor intent, especially in the context of overall organizational goals or mission.

Thanking donors can become a complicated affair, and, in a future essay, I will speak about leveraging data for stewardship activities including donor acknowledgments, recognition societies, and concrete recognition (such as donor lists and physical features).

True Story: A public broadcasting station in the Midwest hired the telemarketing company that it uses for telephone membership renewals to do thank-you calls. The paid callers simply called the donor, thanked them for their gift, provided a few snippets about local programming, and ended the call. If a donor did not answer, the caller left a succinct thank-you message. The result: membership renewals increased by more than 30% overall, and renewals made by via telemarketing increased almost 50%.

Recognition is simply an ongoing, long(er)-term way of thanking donors and demonstrating long-term gratitude. Organizations that publish periodic or annual lists of donors online or in print publications, as well as those who install and maintain features such as donor walls, should ensure that donors who are eligible for such recognition actually wish to be publicly recognized. That being the case, be sure that names are spelled correctly and published as the donors prefer (eg, a couple might prefer to be recognized as ‘Sylvia and Stan Robertson’ rather than ‘Mr. and Mrs. Stanton Robertson’.

Confirm Donor Intent

Stewardship Basic #2: Assure donors that their contributions were or will be used for the purpose(s) for which the money was given.

In this age of accountability, it’s imperative that donors who designate their contributions for certain purposes are assured that their contributions are used for those certain purposes, and not diverted for anything else. Donors are far less likely to remain engaged with a nonprofit with which they have strong affinity, if the organization can not commit to using donor funds as the donors have intended.

This makes a lot of sense at hospitals and universities, which have historically permitted and even encouraged donors to designate their gifts to areas that are the most meaningful to them. But even in less distributed organizations, donors want to know that their money is being used for what they want.

True Story: A theatre had a donor who routinely made a gift of $1,000 that she designated for costumes (she also routinely donated clothing to be repurposed by the costume shop and was personally acquainted with the shop manager). She was fairly vocal that she didn’t want to learn that her gifts had been used for office supplies or for paying a choreographer and she had a direct line for learning if her intent was carried out.

How the Funds Were Used

Stewardship Basic #3: Provide donors with concrete information on what their contributions were used for. This goes deeper than confirming donor intent – and that depth will be repaid over and over again by strongly-engaged donors and continued contributions.

There are so many ways to effectively and creatively communicate with donors up and down the giving pyramid. Certainly, those toward the top of the pyramid command personal interaction and perhaps even special reports describing how funds were used, how the organization’s mission was advanced, and how many people were fed or screened, how many scholarships were awarded, how many trees were planted, etc.

But midpoint and lower-end donors are important too, and solid stewardship practices require that such detail is furnished to these donors as well. Whether this is done by leveraging publications, email blasts, social media posts, presentations at events, or as part of direct marketing, donors need to be provided with legitimate and accurate information that will help them feel personally satisfied that their contributions are doing good.

True Story #1: A hospital had a large number of low-end donors (under $500 annually) who gave to the Indigent Care Fund. Beyond sending a newsletter showing numbers on how many indigents were treated and the related cost, the hospital had not done a thing to effectively steward these donors. Someone had an idea to sponsor a tea at the hospital – a purposely low-cost but free event – for this group of donors. Invitations went out to about 400 donor households; 25 donors RSVP’d, and 20 actually showed up for the one-hour program. Coffee and tea were served along with Girl Scout Cookies. The director of social services gave a 20-minute presentation, followed by Q&A, followed by the light refreshments. Almost everyone who attended increased their annual gift the following year, including one thousand-dollar gift and some 15% of those who were invited (but didn’t attend) increased their gift as well.

True Story #2: A medical school was starting a new research program in pulmonology and embarked on a special campaign to raise funds to support the initiative. A large component was direct mail, with a schedule of three mailings over the course of the academic year. While the regular annual giving program steered away from second (much less third) asks to donors who already gave, the development officer in charge of this special campaign did the following: every direct mail donor who made a gift in the first mailing got a second request in the second mailing, but that mailing included a stewardship piece to inform them on how their first gift was used. The same tactic was taken with the third mailing. Almost 80% of those donors who were asked, made a second gift to the campaign.


Stewardship Basic #4: Transparency will always pay off long-term and lack of transparency is incredibly risky.

Transparency can be defined as openness and intentionality in communicating and in sharing information. In donor stewardship, and in fundraising practice across the board, transparency has come to be expected. Taking that a step further, transparency should underscore all stewardship activity. Thanking donors should be intentional and genuine. Confirming donor intent should be above reproach (and conversely, nothing less than honesty is required if funds cannot be used as donors desire). And, reporting and other information shared with donors on how their funds have or will be used must be accurate, candid, and complete.

True Story: A major gifts officer at a museum had secured a $100,000 gift from an older couple to support a traveling exhibition. They made the payment expediently, but before the collection could be installed, the chief curator was informed that another museum in another city had garnered the exhibition for the months she had originally scheduled. The MGO had to meet with the donors and tell them that the exhibition would not be coming and offered to return their gift. But, she did her homework and offered them an alternative, which they were happy to support instead of the original initiative.

Back to the AFP . . .

The day after the ironic stewardship presentation at the AFP meeting at the hotel conference center with the adjoining bar, the guy gets a call from a development director at a private girls’ high school. “I get it,” she says. “I left the program really scratching my head, but I really get it now. It was great, very useful information.”

“Thank you,” the guy begins. “I want you to know how very much I appreciate your call.”

Stu Manewith, CFRE
Stu Manewith, CFRE joined Omatic Software six years ago and serves as the company’s Director of Thought Leadership and Advocacy. In that role, he is Omatic’s nonprofit sector domain specialist and subject-matter expert and is responsible for actively promoting and demonstrating Omatic’s position as the nonprofit industry’s leading partner in the areas of data health and integration. Prior to Omatic, Stu spent 13 years at Blackbaud, working with Raiser’s Edge, Financial Edge, and Blackbaud CRM client organizations as a consultant, solution architect, and practice manager. Previously, Stu spent the first half of his career as a nonprofit executive, fundraiser, and finance director, working in both the healthcare and arts/cultural arenas of the nonprofit sector. He holds business degrees from Washington University and the University of Wisconsin, and he earned his CFRE credential in 1999.