Donor Relationship Management: the Key to Effective Stewardship


Where Does The Love Go? 

I was walking around in a local mall several years ago when I came across a huge sign in a store window that caught my attention. It read, “Customer Appreciation Days, One Week Only! August 1-7.” The sign reminded me of many donor stewardship and recognition programs I had encountered through the years working with different organizations’ development departments. It also reminded me of my own experiences as a donor: I am really appreciated the week I write the check, but then where does the love go?

Nonprofit organizations know how important it is to provide effective and thoughtful stewardship to their donors, and many have created elaborate programs that aim to cultivate and foster donor relationships. These structures often recognize donors in different ways depending on their various levels of giving. The idea is: the more a donor gives, the more attention they receive. These programs have great intentions; but in order to make sure they’re truly effective, it’s important to consider this question: Do donors, in fact, value these benefits and perks? Have you asked them?

After making a recent donation to a local charity, I was impressed by the promptness of their stewardship. I received a very nice letter telling me about the wonderful perks I was going to receive and the named category I now belonged to. However, what I wish they would have recognized is that I didn’t make a gift to “join” something or to receive benefits. I gave because I genuinely care about the organization and the work they do. If the charity had called to thank me for the donation personally, they would have learned what motivated me to make the gift in the first place. As a result, they could have leveraged that information to best cater to my giving motivations, and, ultimately, find appropriate ways to keep me informed about how my gift was used. The letter that I received instead told me about the benefits I was going to receive and asked my preference on what time of year I would like to be re-solicited!

Throughout my experience with nonprofits, I’ve worked with many development professionals who are under a lot of pressure to bring in new donors. As a result, they simply don’t have the time to really get to know and understand the donors who are already giving.  Furthermore, they are unable to identify who, within that group, has the ability and propensity to give more. Not only are they missing out on information that could help them identify and prioritize donors with the greatest giving potential, they’re missing the opportunity to connect personally and meaningfully with donors based on their interests and motivations for giving – the key to effective stewardship.

How Deep Is Your Love?

So, where to begin?  I would first ask if the donors in my portfolio have the capacity to make a deeper investment in our organization.  Wealth screening, prospect research, and peer review are certainly a good place to start.  Who, among this group, is actually interested in engaging at a deeper level?  I’ve often been struck by the number of donors who occupy space in a development professional’s portfolio who have neither the ability, the inclination, nor interest in giving at a higher level.  For those who are unable (at this time) to give more, should they take space in my portfolio?  Or, is there another way to still provide “high touch” communication without having an annual visit from a development officer?  In fact, does the donor even want this type of communication?

We should be asking our donors: 

  • In what ways would you like to be engaged with us?
  • How do you feel about your donor experience?
  • What do you most value about the work we do?
  • Which of our programs are you most passionate about?
  • How would you like to see us recognize you?

Asking our donors directly about their overall experience with our organization, will not only demonstrate that we care about them and value them as donors, but it will also provide an opportunity for our donors to find a clear pathway towards developing a deeper relationship with us. 

Although this is only the first step in understanding how to effectively manage and foster donor relationships, over the next few months we will be discussing more about how to better focus our efforts, rebalance our portfolios, and better steward our donors.  Stay tuned for our next post. In the meantime, we’d love to hear about how you engage your donors. Let us know and leave a note below!

Nonprofit Trends, Fundraising Tips, Fundraising, West Region

Craig Hightower

Craig Hightower is a Vice President and Director, Western Region at Campbell & Company. Craig leads our Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and San Francisco Bay Area practice, providing fundraising counsel to Arts & Culture, Healthcare, Human Services, Education, and Environmental nonprofits.