@fundraiserchad’s Ultimate Guide to Stewardship & Donor Retention

@fundraiserchad’s Ultimate Guide to Stewardship & Donor Retention

How to Build a Simple Stewardship System that Boosts Donor Retention

What is Stewardship?

So what do we mean when we say “stewardship” in the context of fundraising?  Stewardship is defined as “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care” (Merriam-Webster). It’s the second part of this definition that we as fundraisers should focus on:  “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”

The bottom line: we need to take care of a supporter’s donation by 1) doing what we said we were going to do with it, AND 2) telling them that we did 3) WHILE expressing gratitude.

A new term has emerged on the fundraising landscape in recent years to express this.  That term is #donorlove (note the hash tag, look it up on any social media platform when you need some inspiration).  According to fundraising guru Jen Love, #donorlove is putting “the donors at the heart of everything you do, at the heart of every interaction you have with them. Expressing what your donors make possible by giving to you, and making them heroes for the amazing things they achieve for your cause.”[1]

We must show our donors that they matter.  We must show them that we can’t change the world without them.  We can’t take them for granted.  We can’t view them as transactions or dollar signs.  We must constantly work to build deeper relationships with them.  We must convince everyone in our organization, regardless of their job title, to do the same.  We must build a culture of philanthropy at our organization.  Stewardship must be everyone’s first priority.

But why?

Why Donor Stewardship Must Come First

Donor stewardship must come first because it is the key to donor retention.  What is donor retention?  Donor retention simply means keeping your donors from year to year.  It is typically given as a rate or percentage.  Your donor retention rate is the percentage of donors you keep from year to year.

And now the bad news … the average donor retention for US charities was only 45% in 2017.[2]  That means that if the average US nonprofit had 100 donors at the end of 2016, they only had 45 of those same donors at the end of 2017!  Donors are leaving faster than the average charity can bring them on board.  You can do better.  You must do better.

Why are donor retention rates so poor?  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 found the time to write those thank you notes? No big deal.”  Or … “Impact letters are three months behind schedule?  That’s okay.”  For most bosses, 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.  It will also put you on a constant search for more donors, as your current ones move on to other causes.

So what’s the solution?  You need to build a simple stewardship system that puts #donorlove on autopilot and shows your donors that they are more than dollar signs to your organization.  Stewardship activities need to be routine weekly standard business practices, not something that you do when you “have the time.”  Later on in this guide we’ll outline a simple system that will do just that for your organization.

But first, let’s make sure we’re stewarding the right donors.

WHICH DONORS SHOULD WE FOCUS ON?

Contrary to what some nonprofit executives and boards believe, not all donors are actually retainable.  Specifically, transactional donors are often extremely difficult to retain from year to year.  Transactional donors are your event attendees, raffle ticket purchasers, auction item buyers and peer to peer campaign donors.  The common thread with them is that they donated to purchase something or to support someone else, not necessarily because they care deeply about your organization’s mission.  While we should certainly attempt to retain transactional donors and educate them about our mission, they don’t warrant the same amount of effort as our relational mission-based donors.  These are the folks that care deeply about our mission and  would welcome a closer relationship with us.

You may also want to set a minimum donation amount (perhaps $50 or $100 and above) for donors to go into your enhanced stewardship system.  Below that they would still receive a standard gift acknowledgment letter and organizational correspondence – just not the personalized stewardship efforts that we’ll soon discuss.  This is a bit controversial as there is always the classic story of the $20 annual donor that leaves a $1 million bequest because they were treated well by the nonprofit organization.  The key here is to figure out your stewardship capacity.  What percentage of your relational donors can you steward and steward well?  Especially in small shops, it’s probably not everyone.

THE RULE OF 7

There’s one last research-based factor we need to consider before building our simple stewardship system. Research has shown that donors need to be contacted at least seven times between asks, or they feel over-solicited.[3]  This means that you need to reach out at least seven times between your solicitations with something that is not asking for money, or else donors are going to say, “You only ever contact me when you want money.”

So, we need to develop a schedule of creative donor touch points. What’s a touch point? A touch point is a positive non-ask communication with a donor. Seven may seem like a lot, but the beauty of this is that everything counts. Your immediate thank you counts. Your gift acknowledgment counts. An invitation to a free event counts. Your donor newsletter counts (if they read it).  The key here is to develop a system of touches, and schedule them so that you ensure that at least seven happen.

So now that we know what we need to do to make donors feel appreciated and not over-solicited, let’s build a simple stewardship system designed to ensure that systematic, regular stewardship and #donorlove takes place in our nonprofit organization.

A SIMPLE STEWARDSHIP SYSTEM

So, where do we begin? Our goal is to create a donor stewardship system that is triggered as soon as a donation is received and works to make sure a donor feels properly thanked and appreciated the whole way up until the time of their next donation. It should have mostly standard touch points but leave some flexibility so we can be creative and not come across as inhuman.  But the key will be making sure we reach that magic number of at least seven touch points before our next solicitation.

The other side of this is how are we going to do all of this if we work in a small shop?  What if your fundraising operation consists of just one person?  Or maybe it’s a volunteer that completes these tasks for your organization.  We need to organize our system in a way that there are scheduled daily, weekly, and monthly tasks that anyone can complete. This will allow us to put the system on autopilot so we can ensure that donor stewardship is always happening.  We’ll also know that we’re doing everything we can to boost our donor retention rate while we focus on finding new support for our organization.

So, let’s get started. Let’s say we receive a $100 donation from a new donor. What do we do next?