Elevate Philanthropy ™

Demonstrating Respect through Stewardship: A research-based perspective on respecting donors in times of transition

“Even before the pandemic, stewardship has been one of the most often overlooked parts of a development program. Because it happens after a gift and doesn’t have a direct tie to an ask, it’s hard to quantify the ROI of a stewardship program. However, research has demonstrated time and again that stewardship leads to many positive outcomes for nonprofits, including more positive emotions and attitudes toward the organization; increased trust, commitment, and satisfaction with the organization; and future intentions to donate. Don’t overlook the importance of engaging with your donors even during these difficult times. We know that stewardship works!

Remember, donors, just like you and your workforce, are feeling the strain of the pandemic in different ways. A little extra appreciation or gratitude during these difficult times may go a long way.”

—Virginia Harrison, Ph.D.

The Great Resignation means possible disruption in communication with your donors. And when development offices are understaffed, stewardship is often the ‘move’ that gets compromised.

In her 2019 study, Understanding the donor experience: Applying stewardship theory to higher education donors, Dr. Virginia Harrison studied donor’s experience with stewardship. While the study focused on higher education donors, there are lessons to be learned across all sectors.

”Stewardship doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive. Research has found that a simple thank-you note can increase those positive attitudes toward your organization and motivate donors to make a future give. Make sure it’s not a form letter! Notes that are personalized to the donor and include information on beneficiaries and gift outcomes lead to these positive feelings, while those that seem generic or impersonal can have the opposite effect or even be ignored.”

Four components of donor-focused stewardship strategies

Respect should be at the forefront of every effort.

“Stewardship is the essential feedback loop that builds donors’ affinities for higher education institutions and motivates continued giving. It revealed that respect for these donors is the best strategy for fundraisers to use when building these lasting relationships.”

Communication, information, and transparency demonstrate that respect.

As donors invest more (annual fund to major gifts), they evaluate stewardship and experience outcomes of trust, commitment, satisfaction, and control mutuality more positively. Control mutuality is defined as keeping donors informed about the use of their funds and demonstrating respect for donor wishes

Respect is the foundational element required to then build other beneficial relationship outcomes.

Above and beyond the admiration and due regard that respect creates, it is also critical to building feelings of trust, satisfaction, commitment, and control mutuality.

Dr. Harrison’s study finds evidence that the impact of stewardship may be stronger than that of engagement.

Those stewardship strategies based on respect, reciprocity, and responsibility are stronger predictors of positive relationship outcomes than donors’ involvement with the institution, challenging the notion that building engagement with an institution is the best way to strengthen donors’ relationship. In other words, frequent event invitations may have less impact on a donors’ regard than a thank you note, call, or impact report.

Simple solutions that demonstrate respect to donors

Dr. Harrison’s research suggests that while involvement still has a role in relationship building, donors most want to feel respected by your organization. Even when time and staff resources are tight, find simple solutions to show your donor respect.

Be in touch about changes in transition

Don’t let them learn about changes in staffing at your organization through the grapevine.

Focus the tone of your efforts

Center all communication on keeping donors updated, informed, and included.

Take your “thank you” one step further.

Reemphasize the good work your organization has been able to do with their support.

Pick up the phone.

A simple voice mail shows they haven’t fallen off your radar.

Understanding the donor experience: Applying stewardship theory to higher education donors
Virginia S. Harrison
Public Relations Review 44 (2018) 533–548


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