Donor Stewardship: How Nonprofits Can Build Relationships That Last

First Republic Bank
December 14, 2020

The fundraising landscape has dramatically changed in the wake of COVID-19. In March, nonprofits were hit by a 6% decline in overall giving, and many organizations are still navigating much uncertainty as they head into the crucial year-end fundraising season.

Strong donor relationships can help nonprofits be more resilient during this time of unprecedented change. For advice on effective donor stewardship, First Republic Bank turned to Tony Beall, the National Director of Fundraising Academy, which offers educational and training programs that help nonprofits become more sustainable through better fundraising and capacity building.

Three Keys to Cultivating Donors

Beall emphasizes the importance of seeing donors not as transactions, but as investors in your mission — and creating that kind of relationship takes investment on the part of fundraisers. Beall offers some best practices for strengthening relationships with donors throughout the year:

Think like a donor. The best way to understand your donors is to become a donor yourself. Donate to an organization and go through the donor’s side of the thank-you process. You can then take the lessons you learned from this experience and apply them to your own fundraising practice.

Say thank you like you mean it. After a donor makes a contribution, follow up in a way that is:

  • Prompt: Send the thank-you as soon as you receive the gift, preferably within 48 hours.
  • Personalized: Includes your donor’s first name and reference their specific gift amount. Include a hand-written message.
  • Passionate: Explain how their gift will be used to further the mission of your organization. It’s helpful to include specific examples of the organization’s — and, by extension, the donor’s — impact.
  • Positive: Make your donors feel happy they gave and proud to invest in your organization.

Treat every donor like a major donor. Around 80% of gifts come from donors who give $100 or less. Some organizations only cultivate relationships with donors who give larger gifts. While this may seem like a time-saving strategy in the short term, you may be missing out on the full potential of small-dollar donors in the long term. As Beall says, “You may not know what the potential is to elevate them until you start building a relationship with them.” Deepening your relationship with current small-dollar donors can lead to more investment from them in the future.

Everyone Has a Role to Play in Donor Stewardship

For organizations with a small development team, donor stewardship may seem like a big lift. With limited capacity, how can you follow up in a timely and effective manner with each donor? As Beall puts it, fundraising is a “team sport”: remember that everyone at your organization has a valuable role to play in creating and maintaining relationships with donors, from program staff to board members.

  • Program staff can provide testimonials and case studies that connect donors to the communities impacted by your work.
  • Communications staff can craft the messages you share with donors.
  • Marketing staff can create visually engaging and impactful assets to share with donors.
  • Board members can facilitate connections and cultivate people in their networks on the organization’s behalf.

It may also help to see your donors as part of your team. If they feel invested in your work, and if you give them the opportunity, they may act as brand ambassadors for your organization within their networks.

Tips for Maintaining Donor Relationships During Uncertain Times

Start with empathy. While you’re focused on your organization’s needs, remember that it’s likely that your donors are also feeling the effects of the pandemic. You should not reach out with the sole purpose of asking for money. Instead, start the conversation with donors by asking how they’re doing. Look for opportunities to relate to them, provide them with helpful information or simply let them know you’re available for them during this difficult time.

By leading with empathy, over time you can encourage donors to empathize with the challenges faced by your organization and the communities you serve, and ask them to continue their support.

Be transparent. “Transparency has got to be the foundation of everything we do, and the pandemic should not change that,” says Beall. If your organization needs support for expanded services or new programs, communicate why you’ve made the change, and share the expected outcome. This is especially important for donors who have earmarked their gift for a particular initiative: if that program is cancelled or changed, get their permission to reallocate the gift.

Get creative with technology. If you’ve relied on in-person events for fundraising or programs, leaning into technology can open up creative ways to connect donors to your mission — whether you’re planning a large virtual gala, live-streaming a show to an online audience, or simply sending a donor a video message from your phone thanking them for a recent contribution. To enhance the experience for special events, find opportunities to add physical elements to virtual experiences, such as personalized mailings or home deliveries.

Reaching Out to Donors This Year-End

To capitalize on year-end giving, rely on donors you cultivate year-round. Rather than investing in acquiring new donors in December, Beall recommends maximizing your organization’s resources by re-engaging lapsed donors, or donors who haven’t given in the past twelve months. He offers some tips on how to leverage the existing relationship you have with these donors:

  • Call donors. A phone conversation feels more personal, and many people who are staying home due to the pandemic will appreciate this moment of connection even more.
  • Explain why you’re asking for their support. Perhaps the pandemic required you to cancel a major fundraising event, or the need for your services has dramatically increased. Donors who you have a relationship with will appreciate your transparency.
  • Thank them for their past support. Remind them of what you have already accomplished together. Encourage them to renew their support at this critical time.
  • End with optimism. Ask them to help you close out the year strong, and talk to them about what you can achieve in the coming year with their continued support.

Given the current environment, some loyal donors may not be in a position to give this year. If that’s the case, it’s important to communicate to them that they are still a valued member of your community. Continue to share updates, invite them to events and encourage their participation in other ways. By keeping your connection strong, you increase the likelihood that they will give again when they are able.

Make the Most of Increased Donor Participation

With so many competing priorities, organizations may be concerned that donors will feel fatigued, which could lead to a decrease in support. However, current trends are encouraging: in a recent donor survey about charitable giving trends during the pandemic, more than half of donors said they plan to sustain their current levels of giving, and 25% of donors plan to increase their level of giving. And recent returns from this year’s Giving Tuesday show a 25% increase in giving year-over-year.

Beall says he’s seen similar results from organizations he’s worked with that put a real emphasis on donor stewardship: “Those fundraisers who have leaned in and actively stayed connected with donors, who have found ways to navigate the new landscape, are raising up to 35% more this year.”

During this critical time, donors are poised to respond — and the most effective way to stand out in a crowded landscape, activate their support and set your organization up for continued success is to cultivate strong relationships. Invest in your donors, and they will invest in your organization. 


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