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How to elevate stewardship: the research and practice

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’ which 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 engagement and explore its value in other contexts. She shares with Graham-Pelton:

“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 that 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.”

Four research-based takeaways from the donor experience with stewardship:

1. Stewardship strategies based on respect, reciprocity, and responsibility are stronger predictors of positive donor relationship outcomes than engagement activities. Dr. Harrison’s study finds evidence that challenges the notion that building engagement with an institution is the best way to strengthen a donor’s relationship. Rather, 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 impact report.

2. Respect should be at the forefront of every effort. As Dr. Harrison writes, “Stewardship is the essential feedback loop that builds donors’ affinities for higher education institutions and motivates continued giving.” According to her research of that “feedback loop,” the act of demonstrating respect was the top activity for fundraisers to deploy to build lasting relationships.

3. 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. 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.

4. To demonstrate that respect, transparently communicate with and inform donors. These activities empower donors. And when they’re empowered, those aforementioned feelings of trust, satisfaction, commitment, and control mutuality increase. Interestingly, as donors invest at greater levels, they also experience those outcomes more positively.

Four activities you can implement — immediately.

Dr. Harrison’s research suggests that while involvement still has a role in relationship building, donors most want to feel respected by your organization.

And this need not 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 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 staff resources are tight, here are four simple solutions to demonstrate respect and engender trust:

1. Be in touch about changes in transition. Don’t let donors learn about changes in staffing at your organization through the grapevine.

2. Focus the tone of your efforts. Center all communication on keeping donors updated, informed, and included.

3. 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.

4. Pick up the phone. A simple voice mail shows they haven’t fallen off your radar.

Anna Schlia is Vice President at Graham-Pelton.


Special thanks to Dr. Virginia Harrison, Assistant Professor in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences at Clemson University. Her article, “Understanding the donor experience: Applying stewardship theory to higher education donors,” was published in volume 44, issue 4 of the Public Relations Review.

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