Nurturing Donor Relationships

In recent years and even up to the start of 2020, a familiar tune was whistled throughout the nonprofit sector: We are facing a crisis of falling public trust.

Yet in the sector’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new melody has taken hold.

American trust in nonprofits is climbing, surpassing confidence in local, state and federal governments according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy and their survey partners, Luth Research, and the Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences.[1] These promising findings are especially true among young to middle-age people.

Because this shift has come during the months following COVID-19 lockdowns, the question becomes, what happened? Some things that we noticed were:

  1. Nonprofits filled an urgent gap in their communities. As government responses at various levels were disjointed, nonprofits distinguished themselves as a critical support line. While organizations have always been there, the moment made them more visible and led to more stories about the vital role they were playing to people who needed the most support.
  2. Non-frontline responders put community first. Many nonprofits without missions tied to the COVID-19 response took a step back to allow other organizations, like health and community aid groups, to take center stage and raise urgent funds. Simultaneously, they found unique ways to make their programs accessible remotely, giving free services back to the community. This included things like live-streamed performances or educational activities, easily accessed by people who were in new states of lockdown. The messaging was strong and consistent: solidarity above all else.
  3. Nonprofits doubled down on transparency. As operations, programs and even finances changed for many organizations, nonprofits took quick steps to let their donors and other constituents know exactly what was happening. This showed audiences that nonprofits valued honesty with their supporters, which is crucial to building trust.
  4. Communications — including asks — took on a new level of authenticity. Rather than focusing on splashy, slick campaigns or using pat or formal messaging to communicate with audiences, nonprofits began speaking in more personal ways. This included requests for support tied to emerging needs, rather than pushing to give around a pre-planned or manufactured campaign. This helped donors feel a more human connection to the organizations and people they support.
  5. Nonprofits led with gratitude. Right away, nonprofits stressed their thanks to donors for standing by them during difficult times. Building strong connections with donors and other constituents really begins with a simple, powerful message: Thank you.

A common thread throughout the points above is the importance of stewardship rather than solely asking for money. In its most general sense, stewardship is defined as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care”.[2] And what better way to consider the investment that a donor makes, and the trust and confidence that investment shows in your organization?

Good stewardship often means dedicating time, energy and resources to relationship building, but showcasing appreciation and accountability to donors pays off in the long run. We are already seeing dividends reflected in rising trust in the nonprofit sector, and rather than allowing this to be an extraordinary moment, we recommend nonprofits continue to find ways to incorporate thoughtful stewardship investments in their fundraising strategy, building beyond the ask to also nurture relationships with donors.

How Can You Prioritize Stewardship in the Coming Months?

Interestingly, alongside rising trust reported in the survey, it was also reported that individuals were feeling solicitation fatigue. It makes sense, because the needs right now really are so great — but, even in times of need, we must take steps to respect and honor the experiences of our donors.

So, while it may be important to go back to your donors with additional asks throughout the year, we also need to celebrate the incredible impact they have already made. Build upon those good feelings, don’t immediately follow up a gift with an ask and instead give them space to enjoy their role as a partner in your mission, before seeking their renewed investment.

Some of the opportunities you may consider for stewardship in this moment include:

  1. Thank you calls. As noted above, you can’t go wrong by leading with gratitude. Take the time to call donors and express thanks! Many people are home and more available than usual, so you may find that you can actually get your donors on the phone (although leaving a message of thanks is always good, too). And don’t stop at saying thank you — use this as a chance to share updates with them, and spend a lot of time listening. You can learn more about why they support your organization, check in to see how they are doing during an unprecedented moment and so on. You can learn a lot, which will help you better steward their contributions to your mission going forward.
  2. Pen-and-paper notes. In a world of text messages, email and now lots and lots of video calls, a simple handwritten note can feel incredibly special. Given that many face-to-face meetings and events are now canceled, you may have more time in an afternoon to churn these out! Of course you should — you guessed it! — say thank you, and you can also use these notes as an opportunity to share a program anecdote so that your donors get an inside-view of how they are making a difference.
  3. Simple update videos. When producing media campaigns, organizations often focus on highly produced videos — which can definitely be impactful and effective. However, in this moment, a quick video update shot on a cell phone can feel like an authentic “view behind the scenes”. This could be from programs and beneficiaries, or also as an update coming from leadership.
  4. History and impact reports. How long has the donor been supporting your organization? Often, we think of reporting on the impact of a most recent gift, but you can also look back at the cumulative history of impact during the time a donor has been supporting you. As with the videos, these don’t necessarily need to be highly produced, but could be a simple text document with a few dropped in photos from your programs.
  5. Surveys and advice seeking. Advice visits are a favorite tool of major gift officers to deepen relationships with donors, but you can also take that approach to all levels of your audience by conducting a survey or soliciting broader feedback on a particular campaign or program. You can ask for their input on things like communications under development, ask more about the stories they would like to see and so on. You can also use these as tools to learn more about your donor and improve how you manage that relationship — for example, asking how they prefer to be communicated with. Make sure that you reflect the information shared with you in how you engage with the donor going forward, otherwise you risk damaging the relationship.
  6. Virtual events. Taking the update videos to the next level, you can organize large or small-scale virtual meetings and events to update your donors. These can be done in a webinar-style so that only the speakers or panelists are seen, or in a meeting format that allows all participants to have a small video presence. While you may want to share images or slides with key updates, this is also a great opportunity to get as close as possible to an in-person interaction — asking that people raise their hands, inviting in other voices and even having people craft and show their own “reaction cards” in response to remarks being shared. The key in implementing these events on a stewardship level is to focus more on information sharing and conversation, rather than explicit fundraising asks, which may feature in another type of event you host or be planned for in follow up communications.

But Don’t Stop There… Make Stewardship a Cornerstone of Your Relationships.

When we look at fundraising as a cycle, the actual ask is only a small part of the process. But, it is often the primary focus and metric that we hold high above all others. In doing so, we run the risk of building a Culture of Fundraising rather than a Culture of Philanthropy. In a Culture of Philanthropy, every gift, no matter how big or small, is a critical investment that celebrates a shared vision — a way for your donor-partners to enact the change they want to see in the world through your organization, but which they wouldn’t be able to do alone.

Unfortunately, stewardship is often one of the first elements of a fundraising program to be cut when budgets are tight. That’s because stewardship often doesn’t have an immediate return on investment that can be easily measured to track performance. However, investments in stewardship are essential for the long-term strength of your program. 

In considering a multi-level development program, we see that stewardship does get prioritized — at the top. The cycle of relationship development with major donors includes a great deal of detailed impact reporting and also other personalized touches throughout the year that are not accompanied by an ask. We use these moments to ensure that major donors are adequately informed of their impact, which then builds to justify a future request for support. We also use this as a way for the donor to get to know us better and build loyalty for long-term giving, as well as a way for us to get to know them better and be more responsive to their needs and philanthropic vision.

The thing is, every single donor deserves to have that same feeling of an organization valuing their commitment — not feeling like an ATM! No matter their background or income level, their decision to support and enact change through your organization is significant and special. If you can shift your mindset and investments to ensure that all donors feel honored, respected and celebrated as a partners in your mission, you are sure to achieve incredible impact — together.

Ready to talk more about how you can integrate thoughtful stewardship planning into your program? Email Lindsay, our Senior Director of Global Philanthropy, at lindsay@faircomny.com

[1] https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Trust-in-Nonprofits-Rises-as/248925

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stewardship


Lindsay Long


About the author

Lindsay Long — Senior Director of Global Philanthropy at Faircom NY

Lindsay Long is the Senior Director of Global Philanthropy at FNY, and she brings over 10 years of experience in research, development and communications to the team. She has a background in a range of fundraising initiatives, including direct marketing, special events, and cultivation and stewardship of high net worth and institutional donors. Beyond development and execution of trainings for nonprofit boards and staff, Lindsay is a trusted presenter on trends and learnings in global philanthropy. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in geography and economics from McGill University in Montreal.

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