How to Implement a Simple, Systematic Stewardship Process


If you’ve been in the fundraising field for a while, you no doubt know the importance of donor stewardship.  But with average donor retention at only 46% for U.S. charities (according to the 2015 edition of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project), there is clearly a lack of #donorlove taking place at most charities.

Why?  It’s hard to pinpoint an exact answer, but here’s my theory … While most established charities know the importance of stewardship, it’s hard to find the time to do it well.  And guess what?  No one ever gets in trouble for not doing stewardship.  You never find the time to write those thank you notes? No big deal.  Impact letters are three months behind schedule?  That’s okay.  As long as ASKs are going out and goals are being met, it doesn’t seem to matter.  But what you’re really doing is sabotaging your future fundraising efforts.  A lack of stewardship will prevent your donors from reaching their full lifetime value for your organization and will put you on a constant search for more donors, as your current ones move on to other causes.

So what’s the solution?  That’s easy … put stewardship on autopilot.  Here’s my simple, systematic stewardship process which ensures that EVERY donor receives at least three pieces of non-ask correspondence between donations.  These touches, combined with general correspondence (e.g. newsletters, event invitations, social media updates, etc.) should get you that magical number of seven (Penelope Burk’s research shows that donors expect seven non-ask touches between asks in order to not feel over-solicited).

The Components

  • The Crazy Speedy Personal Thank You

    A personal email (use a template) or hand written note sent to as low of a donation amount as you can handle.  If you can do it for all donors of $100+ you’re in good shape.  Here’s a sample:

    Dear Sally –

    Thank you so much for your recent donation to [insert name of charity]!
    You will receive a formal gift acknowledgment (for tax purposes) in the mail, but I wanted to personally reach out and thank you as soon as possible.
    Thank you again for your generous support of [insert mission of charity].

    With Gratitude, [insert name of fundraiser]

  • A Prompt Gift Acknowledgement Letter

    This is the piece that you are already doing (because the IRS requires you to do so).  It doesn’t have to be sent in 48 hours like many fundraising experts recommend.  That’s because the “Crazy Speedy Personal Thank You” bought you some time.  It should give all the particulars about their donation, have the required IRS tax language and talk about what you plan to accomplish with their support.  It’s one page, on letterhead, hand-signed, with a nice little “Thanks again!” scrawled on the bottom.

  • The Impact Letter

    This letter (or email, if and only if it was an online donation) should arrive halfway between the date of their donation and the date you plan to solicit them next (6 months for an annual appeal, 3 months for organizations that solicit twice per year, etc.).  This letter is similar to the gift acknowledgement in format and appearance; however, it doesn’t have any IRS mumbo jumbo.  It starts out with “It’s been six months since you so generously supported [name of charity], and we wanted to let you know what we’ve done with your support.”  It’s best written in the first person, telling a story about ONE specific person that benefitted from their support.  If you can include a photo of that person (or the project, or almost anything), even better.

Automating the System

Now that you know what to do, here’s how you actually do it.  You simply put these tasks in your task management system and set them up to repeat as indicated:

  • Every Day
    • Send crazy speedy personal thank yous (emails & hand-written notes)
  • Once a Week
    • Run gift acknowledgement letters (you get the efficiency of batch processing these since you already sent he crazy speedy personal thank you)
  • Once a Month
    • Run impact letters (these are not expected so again you can be efficient and batch process them)
  • Once Every 3 Months
    • Update your templates with new stories & organizational details

There you have it, a simple, systematic stewardship process that any charity can implement.  Sure, groups with bigger staffs can certainly do more.  But this simple system is far more than most charities do, and implementing it will help your organization stand out from the crowd and have far better than a 46% retention rate.  So give it some thought, don’t your donors deserve it?