Barry Nelson, CDP consultant
Let’s start with the basics: the difference between cultivation and stewardship lies in timing within the donor-organization relationship.
Cultivation is the process by which we build a relationship and engage with a donor and educate her about the mission of the organization with hopes the conversation will lead to a contribution. Public media is pretty good at cultivation. Our programs and services speak volumes; our role as fundraisers is to convert consumers of our content into donors through carefully-crafted messaging, which may include offers and should include impact statements.
Stewardship happens after the donor has made an investment in the organization. Maintaining a good relationship with a donor is not only a smart practice, but stewardship lies at the heart of Development efforts at hospitals, educational institutions, human services, arts and cultural organizations worldwide. Those who invest in meaningful stewardship activities reap the rewards in the form of more and bigger gifts. Stewardship comprises more than a gift acknowledgment, thank-you call, or occasional additional gift solicitation. With stewardship, we go beyond our often-transactional nature of fundraising.
In her landmark book, Beyond Fundraising: New Strategies for Nonprofit Innovation, Kay Sprinkel Grace notes that stewardship is more than a practice, it is an attitude:
“A strong stewardship program is the single greatest contributor to an organization’s ability to go beyond fundraising. Donors who are drawn more deeply into a relationship with an organization through effective stewardship become its advocates and promoters. A credible theory exists that a donor’s self comes with each gift. The philosophy of stewardship is based in large part on that theory. Organizations that dismiss the importance of stewardship endanger their potential for successful donor and fund development.”
While we all want to be better at stewardship, the question is often one of resources: how do I justify committing staff time to communicating with donors with no immediate guarantee of ROI, when that staff person’s time could be devoted to procuring a gift through a direct solicitation? It doesn’t have to be an either/or prospect. I would argue that stewardship is key to converting a ‘giver’ (of a one-time gift) into a ‘donor’ (of a second, third, or fourth, or possibly transformational, gift). It increases the overall bottom line and provides growth in donor retention.
Sprinkel Grace acknowledges staffing challenges in Beyond Fundraising:
“Organizations that successfully implement donor-focused development programs assign budget and personnel to ensure that donors feel appreciated and informed. Because most organizations cannot assign a separate staff person to the stewardship function, it should be part of every staff person’s job description and every board member’s stated responsibilities.”
Some options for smaller membership departments:
- Encourage members of the staff not currently responsible for fundraising (outside of the occasional pledge drive) to provide a brief story or report on positive, impactful activities, and turn it into a ‘…because of you” message
- Create a quarterly e-newsletter that highlights station activities using donor-centric language filled with gratitude; include member testimonials and forward-promotion of events and programs. MailStyler is an option that nearly anyone on the staff can use out of the box.
- There are a number of easy-to-use options for email marketing/stewardship, such as Constant Contact, Emma, and MailChimp. Most have an email address import capability, and some integrate with CRMs such as SalesForce to facilitate segmentation
- Communicate with donors when you have something important to talk about to preserve your time, and more important, the donor’s time
It is not enough to combine a stewardship message with a solicitation; stewardship must stand on its own and demonstrate gratitude and impact. Indeed, as Sprinkel Grace points out:
“A trusted rule is that for every one time you ask for money, you should contact them two other times without asking for money.”
We need to give the donor credit when the station receives an award, produces an impactful series, ignites the airwaves with live music, or tells stories that stop people in their tracks. One way to do that is to remove the ‘We’ and ‘I’ from our messaging and focus on ‘You’ and ‘the community.’
A quick note about Sustainer stewardship: due to the ongoing nature of sustaining memberships, the assumption might be that these members want less communication from the station. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sustainers are deeply involved with the organization, and proper stewardship reinforces the wisdom of their commitment. That will facilitate upgrades, additional gifts, and planned gifts.
WGBH’s Daren Winckel notes that their Sustainer stewardship program is an amplified version of the typical donor experience. ‘GBH does not treat Sustainers as a giving group with tiered benefits (such as a club or giving society), but instead focuses on being meticulous and providing rapid responses in the form of acknowledgements, sending timely annualized giving statements, and a speedy path to EFT conversion (reminding the donors that EFT helps the station run a tight fiscal ship). Sustainers are treated like their best customers, and the organization reminds them of the special quality of the relationship often.
Occasionally WGBH delights Sustainers with unpublished benefits, such as an e-blast with an offer of free tickets to a concert, provided by a promoter who wants to fill the remainder of a house. Due to the unpredictable nature of e-mail delivery by individual ISP’s (which can result in frustrated donors who respond ‘immediately’ but received the notice minutes after other donors), Daren suggests asking Sustainers to sign up for SMS text alerts, which level the playing field and provide additional contact data for member accounts.
Another idea is to create a pre-roll for station underwriting credits thanking Sustainers as a group.
So, we’ve started the conversation. Please share your ideas and practices around stewardship, particularly those that facilitate the process for small and medium-sized stations with limited staff.