Keeping donors coming back leads to increased donations and stronger relationships that can help your nonprofit in extraordinary ways—but just because something can happen does not mean that it will.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to build a long-term nonprofit stewardship program that increases your chances of retaining those donors and increasing donations.
- What Is Nonprofit Stewardship?
- How to Create a Donor Stewardship Program: 7 Steps
- Nonprofit Stewardship Frequently Asked Questions
Nonprofit stewardship is part science, part art. While there are proven strategies and ideas to guide your retention efforts, ultimately how you retain your donors will be up to the creative, dedicated efforts of your staff.
Before we jump into planning your stewardship program, let’s take a closer look at what nonprofit stewardship really is.
What Is Nonprofit Stewardship?
Nonprofit stewardship, also known as donor stewardship, is a nonprofit’s collected processes and strategy for retaining donors. Generally, this includes the ways a nonprofit manages donor relations and cares for its donors to build relationships that last.
There are seven important steps for developing a successful nonprofit stewardship program. Let’s dive in!
How to Create a Donor Stewardship Program: 7 Steps
Forget the sugar-coating; stewardship isn’t easy. It requires effort from everyone on your nonprofit’s staff. There are multiple parts to the stewardship process, and only when they’re all working well together will your nonprofit experience the true benefits of a powerful donor stewardship program.
To get you started, we’ve compiled seven steps for how to create an effective donor stewardship program that will last:
- Clean your donor database.
- Set clear, measurable goals.
- Create a budget.
- Assemble a stewardship team.
- Create a communication plan.
- Address how your team will approach lapsed donors.
- Put your plan into action.
No need to rush through these steps. In fact, a rushed plan will likely backfire! Designing an effective stewardship program takes time and a concerted effort from your organization. We’ll begin with the building blocks of a successful stewardship plan: a clean database.
1. Clean your donor database.
Donor stewardship boils down to contacting donors at the right times and in the right ways. In order to do so, you need to know your donors through and through. The tough part is remembering the important details for a lot of donors.
There are three important fundraising steps that a clean database makes easier:
- Donor segmentation.
- Contacting donors.
- Engaging donors.
These three fundraising steps are also an excellent step-by-step guide around which your nonprofit can organize its initial contact with donors.
Donor segmentation is how nonprofits organize donors into manageable groups. At the minimum, you should organize donors by location, donation amount and frequency, and event history. Groups might experience overlap. For example, a baby boomer donor might also be grouped with major gift donors.
A clean database helps donor segmentation in two ways:
- First, donor data needs to be organized and easily accessible in order for staff to be able to sort donors into groups. Data such as age, previous donations, contact information, and other relevant data should be available in every donor record.
- Second, segmentation does the work of grouping donors into manageable segments. In a clean database, it’s easy to access specific segments and figure out which segment(s) donors belong to. This makes stewardship easier when you wish to target a specific group of donors.
Ultimately, effective organization saves time and effort that you can put toward other, more important fundraising efforts.
Have you ever called a wrong number? It’s not a particularly positive experience!
It’s useless to call donors at wrong numbers or to not be able to find their contact information to begin with. Stewardship is all about interacting with donors. A clean database ensures their contact information is up-to-date and readily available.
It’s important to keep track of how donors wish to be contacted and how often they want to be contacted.
Whenever and however you contact donors, it’s best to vary what you talk about. If you’re always making fundraising appeals, then you’re building a relationship that’s contingent on donations. Make sure your donors know they matter more than that.
Maintaining a clean donor database is all about making your stewardship efforts as efficient as possible. Once you’re organized, a nonprofit CRM can help you get the most out of your donor database.
2. Set clear, measurable goals.
Maybe you want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or pen the next great American soap opera or set foot on the moon. Goals keep people striving toward greatness, and they’ll keep your nonprofit on the right track, too.
Some goals can be largely unobtainable, but it’s important to institute accomplishable goals, as well. Positive reinforcement keeps your staff motivated, and they’ll get positive reinforcement when they complete important tasks that you set forth.
Good goals for a nonprofit stewardship program include:
- Retaining a certain percentage of new donors from a specific campaign.
- Receiving increased donations from a certain percentage of donors.
- Reaching a higher number of donors through your stewardship program.
Achieving these broader stewardship goals will likely entail accomplishing smaller tasks, such as sending communications at the proper times and in the desired proportions to specific donors.
3. Create a budget.
Stewardship doesn’t come free. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive either. The cost of your donor stewardship program will depend on the size of your organization, the amount of donors you have, and the budget you have to begin with. When determining your budget, consider:
- Staff allocation
- Data attainment and organization
- Planning time
- Technology resources
Ultimately, it all boils down to one question: How much can you afford to spend on donor stewardship?
Stewardship shouldn’t bankrupt your nonprofit. But realize that it is a strategy geared toward raising more money. Whatever you invest into donor stewardship, you should expect to get back, and then some, through donations from the donors that your efforts help you to retain.
4. Assemble a stewardship team.
In order to be successful, your stewardship program needs a dedicated group of individuals running it.
Once you have a budget in place, you’ll have a realistic idea of how many people and who specifically should be on your stewardship team. Your stewardship team will likely consist of the members of your development department who are already acting as the faces of your organization to donors.
For example, if you decide to move from a standard thank-you template for email and direct mail to more customized ones plus “check-ins” with major donors, you’re going to need additional manpower. You might decide to add a staffer or reapportion tasks to address these changes. As you are planning, get the team together and outline the necessary stewardship job descriptions.
5. Create a communication plan.
How you contact donors matters. You don’t want to bombard people with too many emails, but you also don’t want to call so infrequently that they forget about you.
It might sound simple, but it’s not. Every donor is different and has different preferences for how they want to be reached. Ways to contact donors include:
- Direct mail
- Social media
- Carrier pigeon
Though we can’t recommend this last channel, we hate to hinder your creativity—and creativity does matter! Contacting donors might sound mundane, but a creative mind can tinker with the options and keep donors engaged by contacting them in multiple ways.
Instead of focusing on just one channel of communication, develop a plan that caters to the unique needs of your donors. Emails, for example, are a good way to remain in passive communication. An occasional phone call, on the other hand, can reinforce a strong relationship thanks to a needed verbal conversation.
In addition to how you communicate with donors, it matters what you say. Varying the information you share is another way to get creative with donor communications. In addition to fundraising appeals, your nonprofit can share other information, such as:
- Upcoming events
- Volunteer opportunities
- Program information
- Relevant stories
A purely donation-centric mindset won’t create the types of long-lasting relationships that your nonprofit wants. You don’t want donors to dread your phone calls, because they know that every call is another ask for money. Instead, you want donors to want to open your emails and pick up the phone.
Of course, most communications cost money, so your communication strategy comes back to the budget you have in place for your stewardship program.
Sending too many communications that don’t ask for money might cost your nonprofit too much, so plan ahead and decide on a ratio of fundraising to non-fundraising communications that works for you.
6. Address how your team will approach lapsed donors.
Unfortunately, no matter how solid your stewardship plan is, some donors are bound to fall through the cracks. The truth is that every organization has lapsed donors, the supporters who haven’t given in over a year.
While this is a common thread for every organization, that doesn’t mean you can’t set a plan in place to address how you’ll regain these donors’ support.
Your approach may vary depending on your organization and the type of donors you’re reaching out to, but it should include the following steps:
- Write personal letters to each lapsed donor. Not every donor stopped supporting your cause for the same reason and sending a mass email to all your lapsed donors will feel impersonal. Let your donors know that you miss them—not just their money.
- Invite lapsed donors to events. Reconnecting with donors can be a difficult process, especially if you don’t have a reason to talk with that person face-to-face. Ask them to attend an event or encourage them to volunteer. Engaging with your nonprofit again can be a great way for lapsed donors to reconnect.
- Don’t ask for a large donation at first. While a lapsed donor might have donated $50 every month in the past, encouraging them td do so again might end up damaging your relationship. Instead, ask for a smaller amount and explain to them why every donation matters.
- Get their feedback. Listening to your donors might be the best way to regain their support. When you reach out to lapsed donors, ask them for their feedback to show them that you care about making constant improvements.
When you have a set course of action, your team will be able to use these steps to reengage a lapsed donor before it’s too late.
7. Put your plan into action.
At long last! You’ve trimmed the bushes, swept the sidewalk, and shined the windows. Your stewardship program is ready for its big debut.
You deserve a pat on the back. It’s not easy to get a donor stewardship program up and running. Done patting? Good, because the hard work has only just begun.
Donors change—jobs, addresses, attitudes! Your nonprofit needs to remain abreast of every change. Tweak your strategies to stay up to date with who your donors are and what they want out of the stewardship experience. If you don’t maintain a mindset of constantly altering and improving your program to meet the needs of your donors, then your stewardship program will stagnate and fail to retain the amount of donors you need.
Nonprofit Stewardship Frequently Asked Questions
Now that we’ve examined the steps necessary to build a donor stewardship program, we can answer the most frequently asked questions about this fundraising approach. Below, we address how nonprofit stewardship differs from other fundraising efforts and why it’s important.
What is the difference between donor cultivation and donor stewardship?
While donor cultivation focuses on the process of acquiring new donors, donor stewardship focuses on a nonprofit’s existing donors. However, you don’t need to pick one over the other! A nonprofit can’t subsist solely on existing donors. Nor can a nonprofit operate if it’s constantly on the hunt for new donors. For successful growth, nonprofits need both donor cultivation and donor stewardship programs.
Why is donor stewardship important in fundraising?
Donor outreach isn’t cheap! According to Double the Donation, “the cost of acquiring new donors can be 50-100% more than the dollars given by them.”
Stewarding donors toward long-term relationships, on the other hand, is significantly more cost-effective for your nonprofit. Over time, donors retention yields larger donations and an increase in a donor’s lifetime value.
In nonprofit fundraising, donor stewardship helps you improve relationships with donors, retain more donors, and execute more targeted asks. An effective donor stewardship program will save your nonprofit money that can be reallocated to support your programs and improve your community.
Numerous aspects of the donor-nonprofit relationship fall under your organization’s donor stewardship umbrella:
- Formal donor acknowledgment
- Customized thank yous
- Phone calls from development staff
- Annual reports
- Donor-specific events
- Social media shout-outs
Your organization might leverage all of those strategies within its stewardship program—or only a few. But by ignoring them completely, you’re likely hemorrhaging your donors.
Ultimately, donor stewardship is a never-ending journey. Always strive to improve your stewardship program, and you’ll never cease to amaze yourself at how incredibly much you can improve donor retention.
To make the next steps in your donor stewardship journey easier, we’ve compiled our favorite fundraising resources and guides:
- Donor Database Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose Your Software. For more information about how to manage your donors, our comprehensive guide on nonprofit CRMs is the best place to look.
- Donor Segmentation: What Your Nonprofit Needs to Know. Dig deeper into Step 1 with this resource on donor segmentation in your database. No matter the shape of your database, this guide provides a great foundation for making sense of your donor data.
- Volunteer Retention: 10 Ways to Keep and Engage Supporters. In many cases, your volunteers are your most important donors. Because there’s so much crossover between these groups, you should do everything you can to deepen your volunteer engagement