Giving should feel good, right? Our donors need to feel great about their giving. If they don’t, we’re sunk.
Our slow, Fearless Fundraising march through the giving cycle has reached the final stage—stewardship.
While stewardship may be final stage of one gift-giving journey, it is by no means the end of a donor relationship. When done well, stewardship serves as the first step of a donor’s next gift-giving process. It strengthens their relationship to an organization and its mission.
There are lots of definitions of stewardship out there. I prefer to think of it as a mindset, rather than a set of tactics. At the end of the day, stewardship is everything the donor experiences after making a gift. That includes our acknowledgement the donation, expressions of gratitude, demonstrations of impact, and anything else we might do to make them feel great. That’s the definition we’ll use in this series of posts.
Competition for attention, let alone charitable dollars, is fierce. And your success (in the near- and mid-term) depends on your ability to inspire the highest levels of philanthropy from your existing donors.
Yes, you need to find new donors and keep feeding the pipeline. But your best opportunities for major gifts, campaign gifts, and bequests (generosity that truly moves the needle) is with the people already supporting you. And thoughtful, intentional stewardship puts you in the best position to receive this type of philanthropy.
So, in that sense, good stewardship is nothing short of good cultivation for the donor’s next gift.
As we always do here at Fearless Fundraising, we’re going to start by talking about the inner game. What are your donors looking for after they make the gift? What makes them feel great about their giving? What makes it more likely that they’ll give again when you ask? Put simply: What is the psychology of world-class stewardship?
It’s important to start here. Tactics are meaningless if you don’t understand what’s going on inside your donors’ heads. Good stewardship can add tremendous value for them. It can reinforce their self-concept; it can affirm their values.
Well, let’s dig a little deeper….
The Inner Game of Stewardship
People give for many reasons. And the best stewardship speaks to those motivations. It meets an emotional or intellectual need for the donor—and leaves them wanting more.
So, let’s consider some reasons why people give.
David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, wrote a piece in Psychology Today that summarizes three primary motivators for charitable giving: 1) altruism and satisfaction in doing good, 2) a “warm glow” deriving from a sense of agency, and 3) enhancement of one’s social status.
The point of the article: giving feels good. Giving activates the brain’s pleasure circuitry, triggering the release of dopamine chemicals. People give, in part, to “get” those feelings.
Another cultivation and stewardship framework that I use comes from Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File’s book The Seven Faces of Philanthropy. Their research on donor motivation ultimately led them to identify seven psychographic donor “types,” or profiles. I’ve written about this research elsewhere on the blog, but will summarize the seven profiles again here:
- The Communitarian: Doing Good Makes Sense
- Values: The community where they live and do business; “We’re all in this together”
- Motivations: Investing in the community is good business; they do well when their communities do well; they develop valuable personal/business relationships via nonprofit involvement, namely board service
- The Devout: Doing Good is God’s Will
- Values: Faith-based causes and institutions
- Motivations: “It’s God’s will that I give to his work and for the benefit of others”
- The Investor: Doing Good is Good Business
- Values: Tax efficiency; sound financial management; more likely to give to community foundations or other umbrella non-profits
- Motivations: Tax and estate benefits; adviser recommendations
- The Socialite: Doing Good is Fun
- Values: Having fun while doing good; more likely to support the arts or collegiate athletics
- Motivations: Leisure and entertainment; expanding their social influence; networking
- The Altruist: Doing Good Feels Right
- Values: Generosity; “Giving is a moral imperative;” most likely to support social causes
- Motivations: Empathy; personal/spiritual growth; wholeness
- The Repayer: Doing Good in Return
- Values: Loyalty; likely to support education and/or healthcare
- Motivations: Reciprocity; obligation; Helping an organization that helped them
- The Dynast: Doing Good is a Family Tradition
- Values: Tradition; legacy; family name
- Motivations: Continuing family legacy; expectations; peer pressure from other dynasts
The point here is that people’s motivations for making charitable gifts stem from their values. Different people have different values, and therefore, give to charity for different reasons.
Yet regardless of their unique motivators, all donors get psychological benefits when they give. Again, giving feels good—regardless of the donor’s motivation.
And herein lies our opportunity with stewardship. Yes, it’s the right thing to do. And yes, it also adds value for your donors. But it also represents a tremendous opportunity for charitable organizations.
Good stewardship reinforces the good feelings and positive self-image donors enjoy by being charitable. And, the more tailored your stewardship is to your donor’s values, the better. For example, if you know your donor is a Communitarian, make sure to emphasize the impact her giving has on building up the community. This approach will make your stewardship all the more meaningful to her.
You can begin to see why good stewardship is a powerful force in cultivating future gifts from your donors. It reinforces and reminds them of the good feelings associated with giving. The brain likes dopamine. And it remembers which past activities activated the reward circuitry. Stewarding your donors increases the likelihood of future giving because it strengthens the link between good feelings and your organization.
Now, a word of caution here. I’m certainly not advocating for manipulative stewardship. Stewardship is intrinsically good; it’s the right thing to do. But it also has to be authentic. Smart, reasonable, accomplished people (most of your donors) will see through anything that is pandering, phony, or overly solicitous.
And let’s not forget that fundraising (particularly major gifts fundraising) is more art than science.
Frameworks, psychological profiles, strategies…these things are all important. And you need to understand the science so it can inform your strategies and tactics. But, at the end of the day, fundraising is primarily about human connection.
Stewardship + Humanity
Giving, particularly the most generous giving, is about the heart; it’s about humans doing something good for other humans. And so, the best stewardship is also very human.
What does that mean?
Make sure you’re infusing humanity into your stewardship. When thanking donors and acknowledging gifts, are you talking about them or are you talking about you? Do you highlight the impact of their giving on your organization or on the people you serve?
For major donors, are you attuned to their specific motivators and able to demonstrate impact accordingly?
And what about making sure that there’s human-to-human communication in gift acknowledgement? Donors can tell the difference between a form letter and personal, authentic thanks from a real person. The Who and the How of donor stewardship is as important as the content of the message, particularly for major gifts. Your form acknowledgement letter sent by a staffer with an electronic signature from your CEO might be beautifully written and it might demonstrate impact. But if your mid-level and major donors are left wondering Does anybody know we gave? Does anybody care? that’s a problem.
Also, are you on the lookout for humanity in giving patterns? Has anybody significantly increased their gift to the annual fund? Has anybody given again after some years away? Has anybody hit any major milestones, like 10, 25, or even 50 years of giving?
How might you take some of these opportunities to infuse some additional humanity into your giving program?
We’ll talk in greater detail about some of these unique opportunities to add a human touch later in our stewardship series.
More to Come
The next article will focus on creating a game plan for stewardship. Outstanding stewardship—the kind that doubles as cultivation for a donors next gift—doesn’t just happen. You have to plan for it. So, we’ll talk about how to systematize this work so you don’t have re-invent the wheel every time.
And finally, we’ll wrap up the series with tactics—I’ll give you some stewardship ideas you can actually use!
So, stay tuned, more is coming your way.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your most memorable donor stewardship stories—the good, the bad, and/or the ugly. You can put them in the comments box below.