Development Dilemma: Stewarding Donors

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In our weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to

This week’s question will be answered by Betsy Soete.

The Dilemma

The president of our organization isn’t big on spending time with donors after they have made a gift. He’s quick to move on to the next prospect. Because he has a full plate of administrative duties, he prefers to leave donor stewardship to the development staff. How can I convince him that stewarding our donors is an important use of his time?

Betsy’s Response

Long-term donor cultivation and stewardship should be a focus of any major gift fundraising program. You are right to be concerned if your president is not thinking long term. Like any relationship, donor relationships are built over time – you don’t usually begin a relationship with an “ask” up front—rather, you build slowly, cultivating the relationship, gaining the trust of the prospect and building confidence in your “cause.” The prospect will feel a connection to your institution and some ownership, knowing that they might make an impact by their participation in supporting your efforts. But even after the gift has been received and acknowledged by your institution, the relationship does not end. Repeat donors are incredibly valuable, and the best cultivation of a donor for a second gift is attentive recognition and stewardship of their first.

Over the years, I have worked with many donors who became “serial givers” because of the relationship that developed between the donor, the development staff, and the chief administrative officer. It is very important to have your chief administrator involved in building the relationship to underscore the impact of the donor’s contribution to your organization. The donor appreciates the attention s/he receives from the chief administrator above all others. The development staff supports the acknowledgment and recognition process, and their participation is very important, but you may need to remind your president that, from the donor’s perspective, the attention and gratitude of the development staff does not hold the same weight as that of the president.

And that attention and gratitude really can make all the difference. Here is an example of one very special donor’s giving history: A donor who endowed one scholarship at her alma mater endowed nine scholarships (over a number of years) at another local educational institution. She had not received much attention from her alma mater (just the typical form-letter acknowledgment) and was disappointed in their lack of recognition of her first (and, ultimately, only) gift. However, she was very impressed with the attention she received from this other institution, where she felt appreciated and recognized for her support, starting with her initial gift. The dean of the school was very involved in cultivating and stewarding this relationship, over a period of years—taking the donor to lunch, dinner, concerts, sending hand-written thank-you notes, etc.—and the development staff supported all those efforts. Because of this on-going attention, the donor developed a very close relationship with the institution and, in addition to making outright gifts to endow nine scholarships, she also provided for the school in her estate plans. Long-term cultivation and stewardship made all the difference.

Once a gift has been received and acknowledged, it can be easy to put the donor on the “back burner.” The development officer may be short on resources and may be feeling pressure to focus on identifying and cultivating new prospects, planning special events, etc., and the chief administrator may feel that s/he has many “more important” administrative matters to address. Depending on your role within the organization, you may or may not have much say in the allocation of time and resources, but at the very least, advocating for long term stewardship of your organization’s donors is essential. There’s plenty of data available to back you up – if your president is interested in the numbers, perhaps direct him or her to this article. For the financial health of your institution, it is very important to find a way to make long-term donor cultivation and stewardship a priority for all. Good luck!

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