When I became a professional fundraiser several years ago, I was struck by how my colleagues used the word stewardship. As I came to learn, the word refers to the process of thanking donors for their gifts and keeping them involved with and informed about the use of their gift, specifically with an eye toward soliciting another gift down the line.

As someone who thinks a lot about language, I wondered how fundraisers settled on this particular word. Instead of “demonstrating stewardship,” why didn’t we instead speak of “demonstrating gratitude”? Instead of “stewarding donors,” why didn’t we simply thank them?

Most fundraisers would probably contend that the process of stewardship is meant to communicate more than mere gratitude to a donor. Through acts of stewardship, we’re also supposed to demonstrate our organization’s competency: that we can accomplish what we set out to accomplish, and our faithfulness in honoring the wishes of the donor, such as they were expressed.

Fair enough, but why stewardship, precisely? Why not refer to this process as execution, or management, or implementation, or quality assurance. Insipid as they are, these terms avoid the strange invocation of a hierarchy—a “steward,” recall, was traditionally a servant of a household, a meek manager of domestic affairs. A steward was not an equal, a partner, a colleague. A steward served, responded to instructions.

Now this, of course, is part of the point—but it is also what struck me as a new fundraiser: stewardship implies a clear power dynamic between donors and nonprofits. A steward exercises authority in a second-hand way. He doesn’t own anything; he doesn’t direct of his own accord.

But, you may be thinking, once nonprofits receive a gift, don’t they own it? Isn’t the goal of fundraising to invite donors to support the mission and the work of the organization—not to merely carry out the wishes and whims of the donors? Doesn’t stewardship suggest that the donor remains the “owner,” the controller of what is supposed to be a gift?

When we fundraisers speak of stewardship, the lingering implication, wittingly or unwittingly, is that the donor remains the rightful owner of the donation. Rather than a gift given, precisely, a donation is more like “resources lent in trust” to our organization. Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe that nonprofits should provide an accounting to donors and have a responsibility to the honor the donor’s intention. Transparency is good and earning trust is essential. Saying “thank you” over and over again is good and right.

And yet, I also don’t necessarily believe that nonprofits are “stewards” of a donor’s gift. I don’t believe the implications—that the donor remains the rightful possessor of the gift—is accurate or fitting. If that were really the case, the so-called gift wouldn’t be a gift at all.

So, again—why stewardship?

The word stewardship originally gained traction in the United States in the early 20th century in a very specific context: church fundraising. Roughly a century prior to that, states withdrew financial subsidies for churches. Congregations that had relied on state financing were forced to find new ways of paying ministers and erecting buildings. Stewardship eventually came to be the favored term for the process of raising money for the church, whether that money came from pew sales, tithes, collections, or any other creative practice.

Historian James Hudnut-Beumler traced the evolution of the word in his wonderful book, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar:

The church fund-raising literature of these years [1870-1920] bespeaks a great confidence in modernity, which is reflected in two overriding concerns. One was to deduce the correct biblical mode of supporting the church by reading the Bible more correctly than any readers had done before. The other preoccupation of fund-raising writers was creating the right modern system for attracting and collecting support. Along the way, nearly all church leaders would come to adopt the word stewardship to describe their aims and practices.

Stewardship would eventually come to mean many things, some contradictory. Early on, the word was intended to position God as “the owner of all things.” Christians, by contrast, were to think of themselves as temporary possessors of wealth. (Notice that, in this case, the hierarchical implications of “stewardship” are fitting.) As church fundraising practices evolved, stewardship was used to refer primarily to “the time, talent, and treasure one brought to the church for the church.” Moving into the mid-twentieth century, “stewardship became less about ritual submission to God, the giver of all good things, than it was about human beings discharging the responsibilities laid before them.” Still later, “Stewardship as a term began to be used so broadly as to lose its connection with giving and money.”

In some respects, then, the use of stewardship in contemporary fundraising contexts represents one more step in this evolution. You might argue that stewardship, as we use it today, has finally lost its religious valence. It doesn’t have anything to do with God. This may be so, but it does make you wonder whether it still bears some of its original valence of servant rather than owner.  Does our use of this term subtly reinforce a donor-donation relationship that reduces the significance of giving a gift and elevates the donor’s feeling of maintaining ownership?

I worry that invoking a fundraiser’s role as a “steward” situates him in a clear position of subservience to the donor. Perhaps this is as it should be. But without a richer schema for thinking about stewardship, we run the risk of reinforcing the idea that individual donors are, as it were, the rightful “owners of all things.” This is not helpful, particularly in an era when nonprofits are under more pressure than ever to prove their worth, and too many influential donors seem interested in remaking charities in their own, data-driven self-image.

I’m not sure that we should abandon the word stewardship. I am glad that it helpfully reinforces our role in building the trust of donors. But we should also carefully consider its implications and the relationship between donor and donation, and donor and recipient. I welcome a world in which fundraisers and donors think of themselves as stewards, a world in which the constant cry of “mine, mine, mine” subsides to a whisper.