Beyond Recognition: Building a Donor Stewardship Strategy

Once a supporter has donated to your nonprofit, your relationship with them doesn’t end there—in fact, it’s just beginning. It’s your organization’s responsibility to continue to foster a meaningful connection with the donor to secure their loyalty and deepen their engagement over time. 

Having a plan to continue to engage with your donors can help improve donor retention and increase a donor’s lifetime value. Ultimately, this means more support for your organization’s cause. 

From thanking your donors to offering additional ways to engage, there are certain elements that every successful donor stewardship plan contains. At Eleven Fifty Seven, we’re familiar with these best practices, and we’re here to share them with you. To build a comprehensive donor stewardship strategy, we recommend you follow these tips: 

  1. Make a plan 
  2. Show your appreciation 
  3. Offer ways to get more engaged 
  4. Stay in touch 
  5. Monitor your progress 

With a solid donor stewardship strategy in place, your whole team will be on the same page and prepared to cultivate meaningful, long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Let’s get started. 

1. Make a plan 

Before your nonprofit revamps your existing program or implements a donor stewardship strategy for the first time, you’ll need to start with the basics. The first step is to make a plan. 

Determine what your nonprofit aims to accomplish with your donor stewardship program. Establishing concrete goals can help keep the program focused and will make assessing your success much easier. Some goals your nonprofit might set for your stewardship program are: 

  • Increasing year-over-year donor retention rates 
  • Adding a certain number of donors to your sustained giving program 
  • Ushering a certain number of donors on to the next giving tier (i.e. mid-level donors to major donors) 

Depending on your nonprofit’s goals for your stewardship program, you’ll need to be able specifically target subsets of your donor base. Your nonprofit’s CRM should provide segmentation and targeted communication capabilities so you can isolate and reach out to donors based on their gift size, frequency, or type, at the least. Consider addressing the following groups directly: 

  • New donors. You need to have a specific strategy in place for new donors to welcome them to your organization and secure a second donation. 
  • Loyal donors. Donors that have a proven track record of engagement and interest in your nonprofit’s cause will want to have access to certain information and opportunities. These donors are good candidates for peer-to-peer fundraising outreach, volunteer leadership roles, and other, more commitment-heavy opportunities for deepened engagement. 
  • Major donors. Because major donors are such significant contributors to your nonprofit’s mission, you need to be able to target them individually with highly personalized stewardship strategies. 

Once you’ve created these segments, you need to take all of your donors’ Communication and engagement preferences into account to refine your outreach strategy. Targeting donors according to these preferences can maximize the success of your outreach efforts by reaching donors where and how they prefer to be reached. 

You may consider creating a donor stewardship matrix as your nonprofit lays out a plan for your donor stewardship strategy. A stewardship matrix outlines the type of donor, the type of communication, and the frequency of communication that each type of donor will receive. This is a great way to translate your plan into a concrete deliverable or roadmap that your whole team can reference if there’s ever any doubt about how to approach a given donor for stewardship. 

2. Show your appreciation 

One of the major aspects of donor stewardship for any group of donors is to show your appreciation for their gifts. This is the first and perhaps most important element of your donor stewardship strategy. Appreciation and recognition should begin right after a donor contributes to your organization, beginning with a “Thank you!” (or alternative wording) appearing on a landing page after a donor contributes. From there, a donation receipt email with additional thanks is also standard practice to let your donors know their gift was received and appreciated. 

There are additional, supplemental ways to show appreciation for donations, and the exact strategy you implement should depend on the level of gift. (More significant gift = more significant recognition.) Recognizing your donors appropriately increases donor loyalty and fosters deeper relationships with all of your donors. Consider the following strategies when implementing a donor recognition program as part of your broader stewardship efforts: 

  • Thank-you messages. An email or letter containing a genuine thank-you message can go a long way to let donors know their gifts are appreciated. Make sure to describe the impact the donor’s gift will have on your organization. 
  • Thank-you gifts. Thank-you gifts not only provide a concrete token of gratitude, but if you offer branded merchandise, they can also serve to remind the donor of your organization. Be sure to offer gifts that are proportionate to the donation amount—for example, a keychain may be suitable for an average donor, but a mid-level donor might appreciate a leather-bound notebook or silk scarf. 
  • Public acknowledgment. Public recognition for your donors can range from a dedicated section or page on your website to naming a building after a donor to including their name on a donor recognition wall or plaque. The Eleven Fifty Seven guide to donor recognition walls contains examples of the wide variety of forms that donor recognition walls can take. Public recognition allows your donors to receive broader recognition for their philanthropic endeavors.  
  • Donor appreciation events. Donor appreciation events are interactive, fun ways to show your donors you’re grateful for their support. You might offer exclusive behind-the-scenes tours, donor appreciation luncheons or mixers, or other unique experiences either virtually or in-person. 

While a comprehensive donor stewardship program certainly involves more than donor appreciation efforts, donor recognition is still an essential element of every stewardship strategy. You can think of recognition and appreciation as a baseline from which to build your program. 

3. Offer more ways to get engaged 

Ideally, every donor who expresses interest in your organization would go on to become even more involved with your nonprofit. In order to facilitate deeper engagement, you need to provide every donor with additional ways to get involved, not just request further financial support. 

Depending on your donors’ interests, past involvement, and preferences, continue to provide them with information about the following opportunities: 

  • Volunteering. Donors who also volunteer are more likely to develop a strong connection to your cause than those who don’t choose to volunteer. Periodically update your donors about volunteer opportunities and volunteer impact to give them an additional venue through which to engage with your nonprofit. 
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising. Particularly loyal donors or volunteers—not necessarily the highest-tier donors—are the best candidates to recruit for peer-to-peer fundraising activities. They’re most likely to feel passionate about your nonprofit’s cause and want to spread your mission to their social circles. 
  • Fundraising events. Lunches, galas, town halls, tours, and other events thrown by your organization should be promoted to your list of current donors. Not only does this provide exposure to garner more attendance at your event, it provides donors with another way to engage with your organization, strengthening the relationship over time.  

Continuing to offer additional engagement opportunities builds an even deeper connection with your supporters as they interact with your nonprofit in more ways. They’ll accumulate a variety of experiences, memories, and relationships associated with your organization, making their connection that much more significant. 

4. Stay in touch 

Maintaining a consistent cadence of communication with your donors is essential to ensure your organization remains in the forefront of your donors’ minds. This will make it more likely that your donors continue to give and stay involved. As such, regular communication is a valuable aspect of donor stewardship. 

There are several ways to make sure you stay in touch with your donors, many of which should be executed without an ask for another donation. There are ample other reasons to reach out to your donors, including: 

  • Providing updates on donation impact. Donors love to hear how their contributions are making a difference. Consider isolating certain groups of donors and sending updates about what their donation was able to help you accomplish. This provides concrete evidence for the necessity of donations and builds trust with your supporters—after all, they like to see that your organization is doing what it promised with their funds. 
  • Circulating an e-newsletter. A newsletter is a wonderful way to provide updates about a variety of topics related to your nonprofit’s programs and operations. You might offer a more detailed, behind-the-scenes type of newsletter for more significant donors and a more broad overview of activities for your lower-tier donors who may not be as invested in your organization yet. Still, in every version you circulate, provide links to additional  engagement opportunities so every reader can get more information or become more involved if they choose. 
  • Recognizing birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. If you have your donors’ birthdays stored in your CRM, it should be fairly simple to establish an automatic “happy birthday” email to each of them. While this may seem insignificant, it provides donors with another opportunity to build a relationship with your brand—and of course, it makes them feel good. Additionally, consider marking your donors’ anniversaries of giving—for example, on the one year anniversary of a donor’s involvement with a food bank, an email might begin, “One year ago today, you started your journey to help support hungry families in our community…” Doing this reminds donors of their commitment to your cause and keeps your organization in mind. 
  • Sending surveys requesting feedback and exploring your donors’ interests. Sending surveys requesting your donors’ input really makes them feel like you value their thoughts and opinions. After all, most relationships are based on trust and mutual understanding. Trying to better understand your donors is always a positive addition to a donor stewardship program, as it better positions you to effectively reach out to them in the future. 

Keeping in touch on a regular basis with your supporters is vital to ensuring your cause stays top of mind. Still, be mindful of the volume of communications you send to your donors. You definitely don’t want to bombard them with constant emails, so make sure to prioritize quality and quantity of touchpoints. 

5. Monitor your progress

Your donor stewardship program should help your nonprofit accomplish the goals you laid out at the beginning of the program implementation. In order to monitor the success of your program, you’ll need to keep track of the metrics associated with your program’s goals. 

For example, you may choose to monitor retention rates to determine if your efforts are leading to an increase in donor retention. Alternatively, you might keep an eye on gift size for specific segments to determine if those donors are, on average, increasing the size of their gifts. 

Objective measurements of progress like those laid out in the Donorsearch guide to nonprofit fundraising metrics can provide concrete insights into the effectiveness of your donor stewardship strategies, guiding improvements or reinforcing effective tactics. 

As part of your nonprofit’s effort to improve your donor retention strategies, you may even reach out to donors to ask them what they want to receive from your organization. What kind of opportunities would they like to be made aware of? How would they like to be recognized for their support? 

Feedback like this can help your organization remain donor-centric and continue to improve your strategies and programs over time, increasing donor satisfaction and loyalty. 

Donor stewardship is vital to maintaining a sustainable fundraising strategy with high levels of donor retention, satisfaction, and engagement. It’s significantly easier—and less expensive, on average—to maintain current donors’ support than attempt to acquire support from new donors. Keep this in mind as you design your donor stewardship program, and always prioritize the donor over all else. Best of luck!

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