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Whether the economy is hurting or thriving, your current donors are your nonprofit’s most valuable resource. How can you best steward those donors to renew and increase their giving?

Your donor stewardship program is at the heart of your organization’s fundraising efforts. A nonprofit’s current donors are easier to reach—and more likely to give—than new prospects. They are your best source of ongoing financial support and the best prospects for new major gifts for your organization. Your current donors are the most valuable resource you have at your nonprofit.

This coming year, it will be more important than ever to steward your donors well. Given the present uncertainties about the economy, inflation, and the job market, it will be essential to keep your current donors giving to your organization. That’s why now is the best time to renew your focus on excellent donor stewardship.

Here are five ways you can make your stewardship program stronger and more effective in the new year:

#1 – Make Sure Your Stewardship is Donor-Centric

It can be easy for your donor communications to become too organization-centric. As you talk about the work you are doing and the outcomes your programs are achieving, you can fall into a thought pattern where “they” (the donors) fund the work and “we” (the nonprofit employees) do the work. This type of thinking comes through in your donor communications without you even realizing it.

The best nonprofits know that there is no “we” or “they.” Instead, there is just “us.” Your team includes your staff, management, and volunteers, as well as your donors. Without any one of those groups, your work would not get done. That’s what we mean when we say that your stewardship communications need to be donor-centric. Your materials, website, and mail need to honor your donors, recognize your donors, and include your donors. One of the most important goals of your stewardship system is to make your donors feel like a vital part of your team.

#2 – Make Your Stewardship More Personal

The more personal you can make your donor stewardship efforts, the more successful your fundraising program will be. The most personal and intimate type of stewardship is to hold personal meetings with your donors—not to ask them for money, but simply to thank them for their support and update them on your work.

Of course, you won’t have the time or bandwidth to meet with all of your donors. Focus on meeting with as many as you can, starting with your major donors. For the rest of your donors, make your fundraising touches as personal as you can. Hold group cultivation events, such as tours and roundtables. Call your mid-level donors to thank and update them. Send handwritten notes and personalized e-mails whenever you can. Make your communications as personal as you can, given the number of donors you have and the resources you have at your disposal.

#3 – Tell More Stories

Good communication is the foundation of good fundraising . . . and good stories are the foundation of good donor communication. So often, our donor stewardship revolves around reporting numbers, statistics, and budgets to our donors.  Those things are important—we want our donors to see that we are good stewards of their money and that their support is enabling us to accomplish great things.  But if you focus too much on statistics, you won’t be able to get your donors to feel. And getting your donors to feel (passion, urgency, warmth, faith, excitement, concern, and thanksgiving) about your work will ensure that they continue to give to your organization.

Tell your donors stories about your nonprofit’s work and mission. Tell stories about the people you serve, about your staff, volunteers, and donors, and about the work that you do. Be sure to note the work that you could be doing if you were able to raise more money. Make telling stories a central component of all of your donor communications.

#4 – Make Donor Stewardship a Two-Way Street

The best donor communications are conversations . . . two-way streets where you are not only talking to your donors, but also listening to what they have to say. When you are talking to your donors in person or on the phone, ask them open-ended questions, and give them time to respond. Ask them why they got involved, what you could be doing better, and how they would like to be involved in the future. Perhaps most importantly, ask them for their advice.  When your donors share their knowledge, opinions, and expertise with you, they invest a little more of themselves into your nonprofit (and move that much closer to their next gift to your organization).

While you won’t have the time to personally talk with all of your low-dollar donors, there are still ways to hold a “conversation” with them through your mass communications. Send them surveys and polls, ask them to reply to your e-mails, and offer them other ways to respond to your donor stewardship communications.

#5 – Build a Donor Stewardship System

In order to be truly successful, you need to have a donor stewardship system in place that lays out how you will communicate with and build relationships with your current donors. This means having a communications program and calendar broken down by donor segment. For example, you may send each of your donors your e-mail newsletter every month, invite all donors over a certain level to an appreciation event each year, and hold personal meetings with all of your major donors once every 12 months.

Of course, your donor stewardship program starts with your thank you system. Be sure that you are mailing out thank you letters promptly, calling donors soon after their gift arrives to show your appreciation, and recognizing your donors often for their commitment to your organization.

The economic outlook for 2023 is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: if you are stewarding your donors appropriately and focusing on building better relationships with them, you’ll be in a strong position to grow your development program regardless of the direction of the stock market or the rate of inflation over the coming year.


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