True story: A woman walks into a high-end restaurant and a bar on the main floor of a posh condominium building in Clayton, Missouri, an affluent, inner-ring suburb of St. Louis.
She is meeting a middle-aged couple who are long-time donors to the Healthcare Foundation for which she works. Long-time donors, yes, but (some would say) not of gifts of much magnitude – sporadic annual gifts and routine tributes in memory of this one and in honor of that one. In the last year, however, the couple committed to a rather considerable legacy gift which the foundation will get after they both pass – and which, hopefully, will not be for many years to come.
The woman, who is new to the Foundation as its first Stewardship Director, has met the couple only once before, but in studying their history with the institution, their journey as donors, and their patterns of giving, she sees a case study in stewardship. She asked their relationship manager for an introduction, and now here they are.
After initial pleasantries, she gets down to business. “First of all, I want to thank you. Not only for your time this afternoon, but for everything that you’ve done for the Foundation. Obviously, you are very committed. As I told you, Elise, when we spoke on the phone, I was hired, in large part, to understand why folks like yourself and Miles are so committed, and then take those learnings and use them to keep donors engaged. My job,” she said bluntly, “is to keep those with money to give – no matter what amount – actively supporting the good work that we do.”
Elise replies just as bluntly, “Frankly, the Foundation just made us feel special for contributing. A lot more special than we felt ourselves back in the days when we couldn’t afford much beyond a $25 gift now and again. We always got the nicest thank you cards, and you even listed $25 donors like us in your annual report.”
“And you spelled our names right,” Miles chimed in.
Elise resumes. “When my mom died, we asked for gifts in her memory to go to the Foundation, to support brain tumor research. Not only did you send us a weekly list of everyone who donated in her memory so that we could thank them ourselves, but we started getting emails about what kind of research was being done and who was being helped. It was after that we started giving in her memory every year on her birthday.”
“But,” Miles says, “it was the lecture that we were invited to, with that researcher from South Africa, who helped us see the importance of supporting brain tumor research into the future. We love that you tell us how our contributions were used, but she told us how our upcoming contributions will be used.”
The Stewardship Director is clicking as fast as her tablet allows. She and the couple continue talking for the next half hour before she has collected enough information to complete her case study.
The next week she presents her findings at the Foundation’s monthly full-staff meeting: More than 60 development professionals are in attendance, who work in every phase of fundraising – annual, major, corporate, planned giving, events, research, volunteers, affinity groups, database specialists, managers, and executives.
She tells the story of Elise and Miles Robertson, when they first became donors, and how their engagement with the Foundation prospered more, seemingly through stewardship than through conventional solicitation techniques. She gives credit where credit is due, especially to the relationship managers who solicited the Robertson’s ever-growing annual gifts and, eventually, their planned gift. “But they did it mostly using stewardship data,” she repeats.
She then presents the chart below that shows how to use stewardship data based on the kind of fundraising that is being done, and makes a point to say that after the first gift comes in, all fundraising involves stewardship, and that using stewardship information effectively is the key to ongoing and continued donor engagement, even if their giving is not consistent.
Then, after she reviews the chart above, she walks to the door of the conference room, opens it with a dramatic flair, and in walk the Robertsons. She asks them to tell their story and they then spend the last few minutes before adjourning answering questions from the staff.
Q: What made you feel that the Foundation took you seriously as a donor, when you’re one of 20,000 other donors and your initial gifts were, frankly, small?
A: (Elise) We received a thank you card immediately. Of course we knew it was form letter, but it came expediently, and the language was sincere. And, the card always re-confirmed what we intended our donation to be used for.
A: (Miles) We were listed in the annual report – even with only a $25 gift! Frankly, I used to give a lot more to my alma mater and got no recognition at all.
A: (Elise) Also, when we started making tribute gifts, the annual report had a tribute section that listed who we gave in memory of. It may sound petty, but it was a little something extra for me to know that my friend’s daughter or my cousin’s husband knew that I made a gift in her memory.
A: (Miles) And, believe it or not, the annual report always had a least a paragraph about the specific areas that we support – brain tumor research, and, more recently, fighting blindness.
Q: Do you feel that you were treated any differently when you started making larger gifts?
A: (Miles) You mean, besides being on public display, like this?
A (Elise) No, not really. Perhaps the treatment was on a slightly grander scale. We’d get a call in addition to a thank you letter. We started getting more detailed information about how contributions like ours were being used. We got invited to some ‘impact’ events, which were wonderful and, in fact, made us think about other areas that might benefit from support.
Q: It’s no secret that you made a large commitment to the Foundation from your estate. Can you tell us how your experience as a donor drove that decision?
A: (Elise) More of the same. The Foundation has always showed so much gratitude for everything we did – when I made a tribute, attended a thank you event (yes, you all thanked us for allowing ourselves to be thanked), volunteered for the Liver Walk. You recognized what I gave and where I gave it, and really made me feel special. But, more importantly, over the years you demonstrated that our funds were used the way we wanted and how they helped people.
A: (Miles) Or, how they furthered your mission overall, like the future of brain tumor research. That is really cool stuff.
At the conclusion of the Q&A session, the Stewardship Director thanks the Robertsons, wraps up her presentation, and sits through the rest of the meeting. But her wheels have just started turning again. Who’s next?