Don’t Sweat Your Stewardship Events, Think Simple & Unique

Don’t Sweat Your Stewardship Events, Think Simple & Unique

Today’s focus is on donor receptions.  You need to say thank you to your donors.  And one of the best ways to do that is to invite them to something, like for a tour or to an event.

But a lot of fundraisers get too complicated with this.  My advice is to go simple.  Something like bagels in the morning in your conference room with the executive director is perfect.  It’s that simple invitation to come out your facility hear an update and be appreciated that donors are after — they don’t need a fancy reception with a big dinner.  A lot of them would rather have you spend those dollars on the mission that them.  So think simple and mission-based.

What’s my favorite way my favorite way to do a donor reception?  My favorite way is to invite your donors to your parking lot on a summer Friday afternoon for a hot dog or a burger or some barbecue. You put your executive director in an apron and a chef’s hat, have them flip burgers and just talk to the donors and say thank you as they come through the line.   It’s cheap and easy.  You throw your grill in your truck and you pick up some burgers and rolls over lunch.  It’s easy but it’s greatly appreciated and it’s different.  Everything is better in fundraising if it’s different.  If you can stand out from the crowd, it’s so much better.  So take that into consideration fundraisers, how can you be different and simple with your donor receptions?

@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?

Amp Up Your Donation Thank You Page


You need to think about the experience that your donors have when they see your donation thank you page. These are often pretty standard: “Thank you so much for your support, we’ll mail you a gift acknowledgement in a couple days, we couldn’t do this without you …” That’s the bare minimum. Don’t just do the bare minimum.

For the next level up, some fundraisers will share a story on there. They show impact. They show how this donation will make a difference by change someone’s life. That’s a step in the right direction. Some folks will include a video in there saying thank you. Sometimes they even have the beneficiary saying thank you in that video.

But here’s something you can really do to stand out. Instead of a thank you video from a beneficiary, what about a handwritten thank you note from that beneficiary, scanned in and plopped right onto that donation thank you page? Wouldn’t that be neat? As soon as you make your donation you instantly get a thank you from one of the people that will benefit from your support.

So amp up that donation thank you page. Make it impactful. Make it unique. Whether it’s a video, a thank you note or something else, include a word from the beneficiaries. They’re not paid to say thank you, you are. So anytime you can let them speak for you, it’s so much better.

How to Find Time to Read as a Busy Fundraiser

How to Find Time to Read as a Busy Fundraiser

I’m often asked by nonprofit board members, “What’s the most important skill to look for in a fundraiser?”  My answer is always the same … a relentless passion for learning.  A successful fundraiser always needs to be seeking new ideas and improving their fundraising knowledge base.  One of the best ways to acquire this knowledge is through reading.  There are so many great books, magazines, and blogs dedicated to nonprofit fundraising.  But many fundraisers state that finding the time to actually read is quite difficult.

So, here are my six hacks for fitting more reading into your daily schedule

1) Keep a list of what you want to read

When you hear about a great book or article, make note of it.  I add books I hear about to my online wishlist (at either amazon.com or paperbackswap.com).  When it comes time to look for new reading material, I have a list and don’t have to waste time browsing.  I can use that time for actual reading.  [Here are @fundraiserchad’s top book recommendations]

2) Save posts & articles to read later

When I’m spending time on social media, I do my best to get in and get out.  I don’t read articles or follow link trails.  But fellow fundraisers post lots of great content that I do want to read at some point.  That’s where Pocket comes in.  Pocket is a service that lets me save articles for later (in my pocket).  Then when I have a few minutes (e.g. waiting for an appointment, standing in line, before a donor meeting, etc.), I can read these articles — on ANY of my devices at ANY time.  It’s like having your TO READ pile with you at all times, but without the clutter or the weight.

3) Stop reading if you aren’t getting value

If you start reading something and it’s not what you thought it would be, STOP.  There is no rule that says you have to finish what you start reading.  We aren’t in grade school anymore.  We choose what we read.  This is especially important with books.  Reading an entire book is a big commitment – make sure it’s worth your time.  I will admit that I only finish about half the books that I start reading.  Once I can tell that I’m not going to get enough value out of it to justify the time, I’m done.  It’s that simple.

4) Read during all the little moments of extra time

Surround yourself with things to read.  Fill your Pocket with articles.  Keep books and magazines that you want to read on your coffee table, desk, night stand.  Keep reading material in your briefcase and in your suitcase.  Make sure you are never in a situation where you have time to read, but nothing to read.

Then instead of hopping on Facebook on your phone when you have a spare minute or two, pull up something to read.  Even if you only read a page, you are making progress and being inspired.  Don’t let these little moments go to waste, they add up.

5) Schedule a lunch with yourself

When I have something that I really want to read, like a book written by my favorite speaker at a conference or the latest edition of AFP’s Advancing Philanthropy, I schedule lunch with it.  I literally go to my calendar, find an open lunch slot, and plug in “Meeting | Advancing Philanthropy.”  It’s a lunch date, with reading material.  The key is that it is blocked from any other commitments (and it looks like a real meeting to the folks that help manage my calendar).  It’s a great way to make progress on beefier items which really require time to digest (puns intended).

6) Try audiobooks or podcasts (especially in the car) 

Driving is one of the least productive uses of time, but you can change this.  Listening to audiobooks or podcasts is a great option.  Almost any book is available in audiobook format these days and there are countless podcast options — even a few about fundraising.  You can also turn up the speed on audiobook or podcast apps to have them play at 1.5x or 2x speed.  This can allow you to finish things in half the time, and it is often times still very easy to understand.

Productive Fundraising: It’s Both WHAT You Do and HOW You Do It

Productive Fundraising: It’s Both WHAT You Do and HOW You Do It

Productivity is a two part process.  It requires the perfect balance of efficiency and effectiveness.  It’s not only the outcomes that matter, but also the process for reaching those outcomes.  It’s both WHAT you do, and HOW you do it.

The WHAT

As a professional fundraiser, there is a constant temptation, and sometimes expectation, to try to raise funds every way possible.  The suggestions come from everywhere:  articles, blogs, conferences, etc.  My favorite is the “helpful” (and insistent) board member …  “I’m involved with XYZ organization and they just held this great event that raised a lot of money, we’re going to do that too!”  Don’t get me started on non-strategic special events!  Regular readers of this blog know that I recommend holding no more than two big special events per year.  The flip side of this board member is the one that says “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” at every single meeting.  One wants to do the wrong thing and one doesn’t want to try anything new at all.

So what’s the problem with these two mindsets?  Whether you try every tactic possible, or try nothing new at all, you will get the same result … mediocrity.  Things will be fine, but you’ll never really fulfill your mission and change the world.  You’ll be stuck in slow growth mode or maybe even stagnancy.

So how do you do better than mediocre?  The key is to figure out what will work best for your organization, and to do it well … really well.   Buy how? In my opinion, the number one skill for today’s fundraiser is the desire to always be learning.  Read every day … make it a priority.  Keep up with the latest trends.  Attend industry leading conferences.  Expose yourself to other sectors and see what’s working there.  Then bring those ideas back to your office and apply them to your work … INNOVATE.

But don’t just blindly innovate, you have to test what you put into place.  Is it really working, or is does it just make your organization look good?  Charities don’t fulfill their missions by looking good … they do it by raising vital funds and delivering programmatic results.  So, make a commitment to innovation.  Try one or two new strategies at a time.  Keep the ones that work and kill the ones that don’t.  After a few development cycles, you’ll find a few strategies that really elevate your fundraising and charity to the next level.  And you’ll get really good at saying “NO” to the things that you know will take you back  down to the land of mediocrity.

The HOW

Something must also be said for HOW you work.  Are you an efficient worker?  If meeting your goals requires that you put in 60 hour weeks every single week, there’s a problem.  It could be unrealistic expectations or it could be bad work habits.  It’s most likely a combination of both.  By being in touch with your personal productivity habits and constantly seeking ways to improve them, you can take back your life and still be an effective fundraiser.

Developing a personal productivity system that you can trust is a key to success (and sanity).  Managing time, email and social media use are also key skills.  You also need to know how to limit and maximize meetings, travel smart and properly integrate your work and home lives.  And finally, you have to do it all with a great attitude by managing your mood and energy level.

And let’s not forget … you have to actually leave the office to meet with donors, network and build the pipeline.

This has been my framework for success in the nonprofit sector: constant innovation (and testing) with a major focus (okay, addiction) on working efficiently.

Make the Donor the Hero of Your Organization’s Story

Make the Donor the Hero of Your Organization’s Story

This post is a shout out to my fundraising writing mentor, Tom Ahern.  Tom specializes in applying the discoveries of psychology and neuroscience to the day-to-day business of inspiring and retaining donors.

About three years ago, I heard Tom say “your donors don’t care about your campaign goal” and it was transformative for me.  I had been putting campaign goals in my appeal letters for years (e.g. “We’re only $15,000 away from our goal, with your help we can meet it before our fiscal year ends!”).  But research has shown that donors don’t really care about our fundraising goals — especially prospective donors.  Yes, helping an organization reach their goal might be nice, but the goal doesn’t belong to the donor so in the end they just really don’t care about it that much.

But Tom has found that it goes a bit further than just your goals that donors don’t care that much about.  They don’t care all that much about organizational accomplishments either.  Things like be re-accredited, finalizing a new strategic plan or hiring a great new staff member seem like big reportable news stories, but in the end donors aren’t that interested.  Thanks for crushing our dreams, Tom!

So what do donors care about?  They care about themselves.  Not in a selfish way, but in how they help your organization succeed.  They want to know what difference their support makes.  The impact their donation has on your ability to fulfill your mission.

Another great line and tactic by Tom is to “make the donor the hero of your organization’s story.”  This is actually pretty easy to do, you just use the word “you” a ton throughout your correspondence.  Lines like “With your support …” and “Because of you  …” are great ways to say what happened, but to clearly state that it’s the donor that made it happen.  They are the hero of this story, not you or your organization.  Without them, none of it would be possible.

So take a look at your last appeal letter and see how you did.  When I review letters for clients, about 50% of them still talk about the campaign goal and 80% of them don’t have enough “yous” in the text.

Stop Showering All of Your Donors with Love

Stop Showering All of Your Donors with Love

In this guest post for fundraising expert Michael Rosen, I talk about the difference between relationship fundraising and transactional fundraising.  My biggest takeaway from the 2016 Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference (in Boston) was that these two fundraising theories can, and should, coexist in the same fundraising plan/shop.

Please give it a read and let me know your thoughts:

https://michaelrosensays.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/stop-showering-all-of-your-donors-with-love/

How to Put Fundraising Ideas into Action

How to Put Fundraising Ideas into Action

I find that fundraisers spend a lot of unnecessary time chasing the next great thing and worrying about how they’ll come up with new ways to raise dollars for their cause.   A productive fundraiser does not do this.  For the productive fundraiser, idea generation is an ongoing and innate process.  They are constantly collecting ideas and therefore have a fundraising tactic treasure trove constantly at their disposal.  It’s not a switch that you turn on at conferences or as your campaign year wraps up — it’s an ongoing process.

There’s a great quote by business guru Seth Godin that shows the value of this approach: “You probably don’t need yet another new idea. Better to figure out what to do with the ones you’ve got.”  [sidebar: I had the pleasure of seeing Seth live at AFP’s 2015 International Conference in Baltimore — he’s the best public speaker I’ve ever seen.  Don’t miss the opportunity if you get the chance to see him live.]

So, once you take on this mindset, you’ll never have to go searching for great ideas again.  You’ll already have them stored away somewhere for future use.  Personally, I have a notebook in my online note taking application of choice (Evernote) simply called “Idea Bank.”  It’s a collection of ideas, articles, photos, etc. taken from conferences, books, articles, blog posts, conversations, etc.  Anytime I think “I like that … that could work for us,” the idea is captured and sent to the “Idea Bank” for future consideration.

Each year I begin the fundraising planning process by scanning my “Idea Bank” for the best two new ideas to implement in the coming year.  Yes … two.  Not five, certainly not ten, not one, exactly TWO.  The key is to find the best two ideas that are immediately actionable and include them in your plan.  One should be started right away and the other a few months later.  You should also have a few ideas in reserve in case one of the first two don’t work out.  As you implement, you should constantly be testing and evaluating how things are working.  Don’t be afraid to pull the plug if something isn’t working, but have another idea in your pocket to take its place.

Every successful fundraising plan that I’ve seen has had two new innovative strategies in it … every year.  Not two ideas that didn’t work out … two ideas that successfully raised increased funding for the organization.  They might not have been the two ideas that were in the plan at the beginning of the year, but they were the two that got the job done.

When you’re always learning, have a system in place to capture great ideas, and are constantly testing new innovative ideas, your fundraising will automatically become more innovative and successful.  You won’t even have to think about putting fundraising inspiration into action — it will be second nature.

How to Earn More Donor Referrals

How to Earn More Donor Referrals

The most frequent question I get from fundraisers is “Where do I find new donors?” or board members, or event volunteers, etc.

My answer is almost always the same:  “That’s easy, from the ones you already have.”  No matter what type of individual you are looking for the best new ones are the friends and contacts of your current ones.  People tend to associate with like minded people, so it only makes sense that your current donors and volunteers hang out with other folks that would make great donors and volunteers.

So, you’re essentially looking for referrals.  But referrals don’t come automatically, you have to earn them.  You earn them by making the process easy.  This starts by knowing exactly what you’re looking for.   Take a look at your top 25 donors and search for commonalities.  Are they around a certain age?  Predominantly one gender?  Have an interest in the same topic?  Work in related industries?  These commonalities will form a profile of the type of person you are looking for.

Next, you need a way to engage prospects in your charity’s work.  This is best accomplished through periodic introductory events (quarterly typically works well).  These are not lavish donor receptions.  These are simple events, typically hosted at your facility, which introduce people to your charity and show them the work that you do.  It can involve a tour, remarks from a beneficiary, a welcome from the CEO, etc. I find that 5 to 6:30pm on a weeknight works best as folks can squeeze you in right after work.  A few bottles of wine and some simple hors d’ oeuvres always make the event go smoother as well.  The biggest key with these events is that there is NO ASK at them … they are educational and the start of a relationship — they do not raise money (at least not that evening).

Once these two pieces are in place, you can begin to ask your current donors for referrals.  You don’t ask everyone, you ask donors that you have a strong relationship with and that are actively engaged in the life of your organization (e.g. current and former board members).  To begin the process, explain that your organization is looking to grow its support base and is in need of a few new donors.  Then ask, “do you know of anyone else that might have an interest in our cause?”  They will most likely say “no” or “no one immediately comes to mind” — that’s when you pull out the two tools that you’ve built.

First the donor profile … you can reply with “that’s understandable” and then say “let me paint you a picture of who we’re looking for.”  Then review the characteristics of your ideal donor.  They’ll  begin to review their network as you’re speaking and will most likely think of a few folks.  But they’re scared, they don’t know if they can trust you … they don’t know what will happen next.

That’s when the second tool comes out … the introductory event.  This is where you explain to your donors what happens next in the referral process.  You share how the organization has these periodic events where individuals can come and learn about the organization.  Stress that there is NO ASK made at these events.  They are simply educational.  The donor can bring the prospect with them as a guest or extend the invitation and not attend.

Knowing exactly who you’re looking for and what happens next makes your donors more likely to give you referrals.  It allows them to find matches for your charity in their network and conquers their fear that you’re instantly going to hit up all their friends as soon as they give you a list.  So take some time to develop these tools and begin earning your donor referrals.

Ban Window Envelopes from Your Fundraising

Ban Window Envelopes from Your Fundraising

Window envelopes and fundraising just don’t mix.  Period.

The key to fundraising is to build relationships.  Window envelopes don’t build relationships.  Window envelopes tell people that they have a bill to pay or someone is trying to sell them something that they probably don’t want.

No place is this more true than with gift acknowledgments and thank you letters.  If we had the time, we’d hand address these and make them as personal as possible.  Window envelopes take them in the exact opposite direction.  Even if you are seeking payment on a pledge or sending an acquisition appeal, window envelopes are not a good option.

Because of the philanthropic community’s focus on nonprofit efficiency and low expense ratios, the temptation to use window envelopes is always there.  They are a less expensive option since they save the cost of printing addresses on the envelope and any hand matching that would need to be done between the letter and the envelope.  Most print reps will suggest this to you as a way of cutting costs.  However, you need to say “NO” — the connotation is not worth the cost savings.

While this is all backed up by research and window envelopes do decrease donor response, that’s really not the key factor here.  What’s important is how you make your donors feel.  Window envelopes should come from your donor’s water company, not from a cause that they are passionate about.  And if they are giving despite your behavior/treatment, it certainly won’t inspire them to give more.

So, isn’t it time to remove window envelopes from your office?  That’s actually a fun Friday afternoon activity … go find all of the window envelopes and hide/pitch/burn them!  I don’t even like nonprofit accounting departments using them … it’s an organizational culture kind of thing.  It’s one time where the efficiency gained is not worth the price you end up paying.

Once or twice a week Chad sends out quick video tips, free fundraising templates/samples, links to articles by industry gurus and top notch recommendations.  Want in?

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