A guy walks into a bar.
He is meeting a colleague; the development director at a private girls’ high school. He spots her sitting in a booth, hunched over her laptop, and quietly muttering to herself as she chews on the straw that came with her soft drink.
He joins her, greets her, orders his drink, and asks what’s going on. “Well,” she sighs, “I loved your presentation last month on Stewardship Basics. I really took it to heart. It really made me think. And I realized something tremendously important.”
“What’s that?”, he asks.
She sighs again, then looks at the laptop as though she’s about to challenge it to a duel. Then, exasperated, she shuts it and pushes it to the side. “I never realized how much data I have that is, or could be, stewardship data. There’s so much! Every time I engage with a donor now, I don’t think about how to get their gift; I think about what I’m going to do with all the information that I get from the engagement, and how I’m going to steward the gift once I get it. It’s like closing the gift is just the beginning. I’m overwhelmed.”
The guy smiles, then reaches across the table and squeezes his colleague’s hand. “That’s great!” he says. “That’s tremendous! And, it’s not in any way insurmountable. I’ve found that the best way to get a handle on all of this great data that you are collecting – formally or informally – is simply to know and understand what you are going to do with it – where you are going to put – expediently and consistently. Now, open your laptop back up and let’s take a look. Remember, you’re in charge, not the computer. Let’s start with reviewing Stewardship Basics and develop some protocols, using those Basics as a foundation.”
- First and foremost, thank the donor for their contribution. In addition, and if appropriate, recognize the donor, if they wish to be recognized
- Confirm for them / assure them that their contribution was used, or will be used, as they intended
- Furnish them with specific information about how their contribution was or will be used
- All of this should be done with a foundation of transparency
Thanking the Donor
Make sure to collect and record key information about donors that allows them to be thanked effectively, correctly, and quickly. Some of this sounds incredibly elementary, but it’s shocking to see how often this information is gotten wrong, which at best delays the thanking, and at worst can completely undermine the credibility of the organization (or, perhaps, only the credibility of the development office).
- Make sure to properly record the spelling of the donors’ names. Surnames, especially, can be easily misspelled if attention is not paid. Unlike most word processing systems, most databases won’t alert a user when common names are misspelled.
- In this day-and-age of hyphenations, spouses with different surnames, gifts from combined households, etc., be sure to record the right name formats and structures so that your donors are properly addressed. This includes the preference for formality or not; while Mr. and Mrs. Miles Robertson, Jr. prefer to be referred to as such, their son and daughter-in-law may prefer Elise and Miles Robertson.
- Sounds crazy, but be sure to record the donation on the correct donor’s record. As in the example above, you’ve got Miles Robertson, Jr. and Miles Robertson III.
- Make note of donors’ preferences regarding how they want to be thanked: traditional acknowledgment letters (postal mail), or email, or, for major donors, acknowledgment letters delivered in person. Some donors prefer to be thanked by phone, if that’s the case, thank them that way appropriately, and follow-up of with a tax acknowledgment within a reasonable timeframe.
- Finally, make sure to know and mark which address to use; true for conventional postal mail as well as email. In fact, today, this is perhaps more of an issue for those with multiple / new / ever-changing email addresses, than for those who use ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ as verbs.
Recognizing the Donor
For donors who qualify to be included in published lists of donors, in print or online, or who are included in prominent features such as donor “walls of fame,” it’s important to record this for posterity. Some donor databases have specific places to record such information; if so, great. If not, then find a place in your system that makes sense and ensure that it is used consistently for this purpose.
Some organizations have robust plaque programs, especially those who have been through multiple capital campaigns and/or who have large physical premises – hospitals, universities, zoos, botanical gardens, and the like. Please, please be sure to record the following for future generations (the donors’ and the development professionals’):
- Plaque location
- Exact wording
- Background, if known (eg, related campaign, gift(s), purpose, why this location, etc.)
Today, it’s easy to take a photograph and then upload the image to the database system, along with metadata containing the above.
True Story: a new hospital major gift officer “inherited” a portfolio of major and campaign donors that included a very high volume of plaques. In the days before smartphones, she took disposable “Instamatic” cameras around to the location of every plaque, took a picture of the plaque, had the pictures developed (yes, that was a thing), and put them into an organized, reference-able three-ring binder with pages that included the data above. These days, of course, the photos would be uploaded as attachments and there’d be plenty relational-database-ways to consistently record the plaque data and relate it back to the proper donors, gifts, campaigns, and so forth.
Confirming Donor Intent
Donors who specify their contributions for certain purposes should be assured that their contributions are used for those certain purposes, and not diverted to anything else. Most if not all constituent/donor management systems have a specific indicator at the transaction level that allows the organization to record the designation, purpose, or other restriction for which a donor makes a donation. Recording this serves as permanent evidence of donor intent. When communicating with donors, whether en masse or individually, whether simply thanking them or meeting with them about a complex matter, being able to confirm where they give/gave continues to build trust and further ongoing engagement.
It is strongly recommended that that purpose/designation/restriction/fund field be required on all transactional data entry. In many systems that field is required by default and cannot be made un-required. In many systems that field is also inextricably tied to financial recording, which further supports donor intent.
What about donors who give to “the area of greatest need?” Be sure to record that! Whether there is an Unrestricted Fund that gets this money, or whether program leadership designates different areas of greatest need from time to time, be sure to record that the donor’s intent was to defer to the greatest need of the organization.
Finally, if there is documentation that is received with a gift that indicates donor intent, hang on to it. Hanging on to it could mean electronically, eg, an image of the documentation that is attached to the transaction record or linked via a document management system. Even if it’s a direct mail reply slip, if it specifies or indicates donor intent, hold onto it if you have the (electronic) space. And then there’s always filing cabinets.
Demonstrating How Donor Funds Were Used
Remember that fund / designation / purpose / restriction field that was just discussed? That’s where to cram, er, put as much information as possible on how donors’ funds were/are being used. Many database systems have fund or designation records where information can be attached or entered. For systems that don’t have that feature, keep old-school hard files in an old-school filing cabinet.
What to record and/or maintain? Reports, documents, spreadsheets, financial statements, prospecti, email messages, board/committee presentations, photographs – again, anything that indicates how the donor funds were used or on what they were spent. Again, ideally, this information can be attached to fund or designation records in the database, but if not, add them to hard files and have them readily available for donor communication and interactions.
For donors who give for very specific or restricted purposes, it may take a little research with program specialists to determine how their money was used. For donors who give to purposes that are broad in nature (eg, the Library Fund, the Indigent Care Fund, the Disaster Relief Fund), statistics are often the easiest data to obtain, and they can make a deep impression (“we acquired 16 rare volumes,” “we covered $200,000 in medical bills,” “we rescued 30 families and provided temporary housing for 75 people”).
And those who give to unrestricted funds or to areas of greatest need are just as entitled to know how their gifts were spent. That information should be the easiest to obtain or determine.
Stewarding on a Foundation of Transparency
Database systems really don’t have a place to record transparency. There are no “honesty” checkboxes or “level of candidness” drop-down tables. Just always keep this tenet front-of-mind: transparency will always pay off long-term and lack of transparency is incredibly risky. So, while tracking transparency is next to impossible, always stewarding from a position of transparency ensures that it doesn’t have to be tracked.
Back to the bar . . .
“Still want to do battle with your laptop?”, the guy says to his colleague.
“Well, yes,” she says, “but not for the reasons that we’ve just been talking about. I’m thinking about a whole new list of data entry and integrity standards to implement, and I might even start looking at upgrading to a more robust database system that can better support some of what we’ve been discussing. If there’s anyone that I’m going to battle with, it’s my team, my school head, my CFO . . . .”
The guy chuckles. “Just remain steadfast and don’t lose the war.” He sips his drink.