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How to elevate stewardship: the research and practice

Vice President (Former)

While development offices everywhere are feeling the effects of The Great Resignation, turnover has long been cited as a top challenge to fundraising success. And when those offices are understaffed or experience transition, stewardship is often the ‘move’ that gets compromised.

Academic analysis of stewardship reveals just how damaging this can be. Having devoted her professional focus to the study of stewardship in donor communications and relationship building, Dr. Virginia Harrison pursues her research with the goal to better define, measure, and understand how stewardship plays a role in deepening donor relationships and explore its value in other contexts.

She shares with Graham-Pelton:

Even before the pandemic, stewardship has been one of the most 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 with donors, including increased trust, commitment, and satisfaction with the organization; and future intentions to donate.

Why stewardship is essential

As donors deepen their giving relationship with an institution, they evaluate stewardship more positively.

For example, major donors typically place as higher a value on stewardship than annual donors, and major donors with multiple endowments even more so. Therefore, stewardship should be considered an essential component of any development program.

The four components of donor-centric stewardship

Research suggests that while involvement still has a role in relationship building, donors most want to feel respected by your organization. Stewardship is essential to building that respect and laying the foundation for long-lasting donor relationships.

Here are four key takeaways from Dr. Harrison’s research to use when developing your stewardship strategy:

Respect should be at the forefront of every effort

The act of demonstrating respect was the top activity for fundraisers to deploy to build lasting relationships, according to Dr. Harrison’s research.

She writes, “Stewardship is the essential feedback loop that builds donors’ affinities for higher education institutions and motivates continued giving.”

Respect is the foundation for donor trust and loyalty

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. Control mutuality is defined as the balance of decision-making power. An example of control mutuality in action is when a nonprofit conducts a planning study with its supporters, gaining feedback about campaign priorities.

Communication and transparency demonstrate respect

These activities empower donors. And when they’re empowered, those feelings of trust, satisfaction, commitment, and control mutuality increase. Interestingly, as donors invest at greater levels, they also experience those outcomes more positively.

Stewardship builds stronger relationships than engagement

The study revealed that the impact of stewardship may be stronger than the impact of engagement.

In other words, frequent event invitations may have less impact on a donor’s regard for your institution than a thank you note, call, or a personalized impact report.

Four stewardship tips you can implement — immediately

Respectful stewardship isn’t 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 gift,” Dr. Harrison shares. “But 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.”

Even when time and resources are tight, here are four simple solutions to demonstrate respect and engender trust:

Be in touch about changes in leadership and key staff

Don’t let donors 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 generosity and commitment of your donor. Keep the focus of your “thank you” on them and their good work, not only their donations.

Pick up the phone

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