This is the final post in our series on donor stewardship. So far, our guiding principles have been: 1) stewardship is the right thing to do, and 2) good stewardship is a driver of future fundraising results.
As always, we started big-picture. The first post was on the psychology of donor stewardship. It’s so important to understand what’s going on behind the scenes before diving into tactics.
Post #2 in this series is all about stewardship strategy and planning. You need to make sure you know where your program currently stands and what your goals are. I even gave you a framework for doing a stewardship audit; maybe you went through it already. The audit will help you make sure you’re pointed in the right direction. After all, you want stewardship initiatives that will actually move the needle for you.
So, at this point, you 1) understand the fundraising theory behind donor stewardship, 2) did an audit to assess your program, and 3) have established goals to guide further investments. Now, you can choose the tactics that will work best at your unique organization.
This post is all about tactics. And, as we always do here at Fearless Fundraising, we’re going to try and make this the most practical, actionable information out there on the topic. We’ll organize our recommendations around the three fundraising goals we’ve focused on throughout the series.
If inspiring donors to give year-after-year is your primary goal, here are some strategies and tactics that will help you get there.
Treat First-Time Donors Well
Motivating first-time donors to give a second time is critical to long-term retention. So, you need to make your first-time donors feel great about their giving. In particular, you want to communicate two things: 1) someone at the organization is aware of your first-time gift, and 2) your gift matters, it has impact, here’s how. These tactics will help you nail the first impression:
- Personal Acknowledgment – Is your organization small enough to have someone personally acknowledge every first-time gift? For mid-size organizations, is there a team of “stewardship” volunteers who can take this on? When thinking through who is going to do this outreach, consider the size of the gift. Some gifts merit personal acknowledgment from your chief executive or board chair. Staff or volunteers can handle others.
- New Donor Welcome Kit – One way to make a great first impression is to send a welcome package to your first-time donors. Just as most businesses are willing to spend money to acquire new customers, many charities see long-term ROI when they invest in their newest donors. A mailing package that makes a good first impression is one way to do this. But! Be careful not to overdo it. You don’t want your donors feeling like the entire value of their gift was spent on a welcome package. Contents can include: a nice letter of thanks, a branded token of appreciation (or two), stickers, educational brochures/pamphlets, a notepad, custom sticky notes, bookmarks, branded pens/pencils, invitations to take part in events or experiences. As you can tell, the sky is the limit. Figure out what works for your organization, but isn’t too splashy. At the end of the day, you want your welcome package to communicate appreciation and further engage your donors.
- Automate a Welcome Email Sequence – Any of the major email tools (i.e. MailChimp, Constant Contact, Hubspot, etc.) enable you to automate delivery of an email sequence. You can send as many as you want and time them however you want. What is the basic information you want first-time supporters to know about your organization? What are the ongoing involvement opportunities and/or other “next steps” that you might want to highlight for a new donor? Let your newsletter keep your donors informed of the latest news going forward. Use the Welcome Sequence to provide key information about your mission and programs, as well as to inspire new donors to get involved early on.
Incentivize the Second Gift (and Third, and Fourth…)
One way to be clear about what you want supporters to do for your organization is to incentivize the desired behaviors. So, if you want more repeat donors, celebrate and reward those making repeat gifts.
- Monthly or Consecutive Giving Society – Many organizations have donor recognition societies for giving at or above a certain dollar amount. A monthly or consecutive giving society recognizes a donor’s consistency. These programs don’t have to be elaborate or cost a lot of money. The most important things are: 1) that you recognize and highlight the desired behavior, 2) give people a status or a label as members of something, and 3) provide a few perks along the way. In fact, you can launch a monthly or consecutive giving society with a simple welcome letter, a token of appreciation, and a web page.
- Celebrate Giving Milestones –This tactic can be related to the item above or can be done independently. The idea is to add a special stewardship touch following a donor’s 5th gift, 10th gift, 25th gift—you pick the levels. You can also decide whether to acknowledge 5th gift overall or five years of giving consecutively. The first step is to dig into your giving data and learn who recently hit giving milestones and who else might be close. Next, develop the stewardship program. Some options might include a nice letter with a branded gift item, a special “thank you” video, a discount on something, or an invitation they wouldn’t otherwise receive. Again, you don’t have to break the bank. But, it makes an impression on a donor when you acknowledge their milestone and tell them about the impact they’ve made.
Education and Engagement
To inspiring consistent giving, you must also commit to ongoing donor education and engagement. So, how are you keeping your supporters up-to-date on your mission, big issues, and the well-being of the constituents you serve? Here are some ideas:
- Subscribe Them to Your Email Newsletter – email is very cheap and, if you’re like most organizations, you already use email to market your programs and keep your constituents informed. Make sure you add your new donors to the distribution list. You might also think about creating a special newsletter just for your donor community. It’s a great way to highlight the impact of philanthropy and share donor stories. Start with twice a year and then increase in frequency as your bandwidth grows.
- Personal Outreach – Some donors will warrant personal attention because of the size of their gifts, or their potential. The deepest education and engagement happen when major gifts officers (MGOs) truly get to know their donors—and then help them make meaningful connections to the organization. Unfortunately, this approach to donor stewardship does not scale very well! You simply can’t do this for everyone in your database. Reserve MGO attention for your best donors and prospects to ensure the highest ROI.
Donors are more likely to become repeat donors if they’re confident their gifts are making a difference. It’s our job as fundraisers to show them their impact. There are many ways to do this:
- Written Impact Reports – This approach is more formal and is often used by larger organizations. It includes annual reports, as well as updates on specific projects like capital campaigns. These reports tend to be highly-produced, including good photography and professional copy-writing and printing.
- Verbal Impact Updates from a Gift Officer – You can also communicate impact one-on-one, and it’s perhaps most effective this way. Gift officers can use this opportunity to bring someone else from the organization to participate in the meeting as well—a senior executive, subject-matter expert, or member of the program staff. And, of course, verbal updates can also be done as part of a tour or site visit (see below).
- Tours and Site Visits – Giving donors an opportunity to “see the mission in action” is why tours and site visits are such powerful and popular stewardship opportunities. They also deepen engagement and commitment by providing supporters with an up-close look at what their giving makes possible.
- Updates from Constituents Served – Consider what opportunities you can create for connecting donors with the constituents benefiting from their philanthropy. Examples could include luncheons with scholarship recipients, salon programs with symphony orchestra musicians, or other meet-and-greet events. If difficult or inappropriate to facilitate in-person connections, consider how you might establish communication (even if only one way) between donors and beneficiaries. For example, have recipients of support write a letter of gratitude or record a quick selfie video (see below).
- Quick Selfie Videos – A selfie video is a great way to quickly, easily, and authentically capture impact or gratitude and communicate it to donors. Whether it’s a gift officer sending a quick video of the latest progress on a construction project, an aid organization updating on the situation on the ground, or a beneficiary saying “thank you,” quick cell phone footage is a versatile yet powerful stewardship tactic.
More Major Gifts
If you goal is more major gifts, you will need to focus higher up on your giving pyramid. And your stewardship will need to be more personal. Here are some strategies and tactics, some of which overlap with ideas already discussed:
Focus on Personal Relationships and Connections
Major gift fundraising is all about relationships. I tell my gift officers all the time: “This is why the robots will never replace us!”
But major gift cultivation doesn’t scale very well. It’s slow, personal, and labor-intensive, but has huge upside potential. You just can’t focus on all your donors. Here are some stewardship strategies that will help you move frequent and/or mid-level donors with capacity up to higher levels of giving.
- Personal Thanks from the CEO or Board Chair – If your focus is truly on expanding your major gifts pipeline, make sure your CEO and Board Chair share that aspiration and know they’re key to the process. For a time, that may mean they need to get on the phone with lower levels of donors than they might usually engage with. For example, if you usually reserve CEO and Board engagement for donors of $25,000 or more, you might need to identify a group of $10,000 and $15,000 donors for them to connect with.
- Cultivation Meetings and Lunches – This is routine work for MGOs, yet essential to building your major gifts pipeline. Want more $10,000 donors? Spend time face-to-face with more $1,000-5,000 donors; get to know their interests and motivations. These cultivation meetings will position you for larger asks down the road.
- Small Group Cultivation Events – On average, major donors have at least three personal connections at an organization. Think about a group of your current major or mid-level donors. How many people affiliated with your non-profit do they know? Consider arranging an opportunity for a promising group of them to get together with your CEO, members of your Board, or an expert of interest. A special lunch or dinner opportunity for 10-12 people is one example. You could also convene a group of this size for a “roundtable” conversation—a one-time meeting of the minds on a particular topic. Or, if warranted, you could make it a longer-term volunteer opportunity and call it an “advisory council.” All of these opportunities help increase the number of connections your donors have with one another and with the organization.
- Other Personal Introductions – Never under-estimate the “convening power” of your organization. Whatever your mission, you have a network of people who care about it, including people who have serious subject matter expertise, or vision, or very personal and moving stories. Make sure your best donors feel that they can access this network. It can be as simple as personal introductions and/or lunch, or salon-style events with an expert or other person of interest.
Up Your Reporting Game
Larger, more impactful gifts also require a different level of donor stewardship. When making a transformative philanthropic investment, donors are usually expecting to make an impact over a long period of time. This is the perfect opportunity to get into a regular rhythm of reporting that demonstrates ongoing impact. It could involve anything from more highly-produced, printed reports (great for endowment donors), or site visits at regular intervals (great for capital donors and/or donors to program).
Get Recognition Right
At higher and higher gift levels, you must understand your donor’s recognition preferences. How do you learn what they like? Well, no surprise here: you talk to them about it. First and foremost, you need to get their name right in whatever printed recognition you use. For larger gifts, make sure you understand how they want to be celebrated. Ask permission before writing any press releases or publishing any articles. Some donors are fine with public recognition, but want the amount of their gifts to remain anonymous. This is also important to know. Where applicable, show donors mock-ups of recognition signage or plaques before they’re fabricated and installed. Getting the recognition right is essential to making gift-giving a joyous experience for your donors. It will also increase the likelihood that they give again.
Firming Up the Fundamentals
If your primary stewardship goal is to reliably deliver on the essentials, here’s a summary of things to focus on.
- Enter Gifts Into Your Database – Most organizations do this as part of their standard operating procedures. At the very least, you want to make sure you’re capturing: donor name, any relevant donor contact information, gift amount, gift date, and gift purpose. This information is both your historical record and the inputs for any fundraising reporting you might want to do in the future.
- Acknowledge the Gift – This also goes without saying, but you need to get something in writing (email or snail mail) to your donor thanking them for their gift. At the very least, your acknowledgement needs to include the name of your organization, your contact information, acknowledgement that a donation was received, the amount of the gift, the purpose of the gift (if applicable), your federal tax ID number, and a statement about whether goods or services were provided in exchange for the gift. This is the bare minimum. You can add additional layers (i.e. personal phone calls, naming opportunities, etc.—we’ve covered many in this post already) depending on the size of the gift, its impact, or the further potential of the donor.
- Acknowledge in a Timely Manner – How quickly should you acknowledge a gift after it’s received? Well, generally speaking, the sooner the better. With the proliferation of online giving, it’s easy to automate instantaneous gift acknowledgments that cover all the basics. It’s the equivalent of a confirmation email or digital form letter. So you need to consider whether you want this to be the only acknowledgement your donors receive. If nothing else, it fulfills your obligation and buys you time to deliver a more-personal stewardship touch later. For gifts arriving by check, I like to mail an acknowledgement letter within five business days. That way whoever oversees this process can create a batch of letters once a week. Some charities aspire to a 48-hour turnaround. If you can do that, great! I’ve never found, however, that a two-day turnaround generates significantly more good will than a five-day.
- Acknowledge in the Manner the Gift was Made – Generally speaking, you want to acknowledge online gifts via email and mailed checks via snail mail. For important donors, you can then layer additional thanks on top.
- Keep your donors “In the Know” – Make sure you have at least one mechanism in place for keeping your donors informed of your organization’s ongoing work. Email newsletters are common, as are annual reports, and social media. If you haven’t already, figure out a marketing piece for demonstrating impact and make sure your donors receive it at regular intervals. This is also where your donors should learn about other ways to get involved like site visits, volunteering, or other giving opportunities.
I hope some of the tactical ideas in this post help you to take a step forward with your donor stewardship program. Please don’t feel pressure to implement all of them. Let your goals and your stewardship audit be your guide. And then take an incremental step forward—what’s one new tactic you can put in place in the near term? If you have the bandwidth for two, go for it. But be wary of taking on more than you can reasonably commit to over the next six to twelve months. It will take that much time to gather data and assess whether your new tactics are moving the needle.
At the end of the day, donor stewardship is good on its own merits. But, done well, it is also an important fundraising strategy that will help you net more dollars for your organization. I hope this series has given you a vision for where investments in thanking and recognizing can also help you raise more funds over the long run.
Best of luck. And, as always, if you come across any brilliant stewardship ideas, please drop them in the comments below.