Serendipity and Stewardship

Serendipity, aside from being a long-ago restaurant I used to enjoy, is having things –usually positive things--occur by chance.  So it was when I read in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that according to IRS figures, individual giving to nonprofits dropped far more during the recession than predicted. Well, it was not particularly positive news, but it was serendipitous. I was giving a workshop on stewardship in a day or so, and this really brought home the importance of taking care of your donors.

According to the report, giving probably dropped as much as 20% in 2008 and 2009.  That is one deep hole to climb out of.  But if your organization also followed the trends in donor attrition, you would really be, as my dear old mother used to say, S*O*L.

In the 2010 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report, the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Urban Institute noted that for every $4.50 nonprofits gained in new gifts, a little more than $6 was lost in lapsed gifts.  Six was also an important number for donors—that was the number of donors lost through attrition for every 5.4 new donors recruited.  Not a pretty picture.

Donor attrition rates have long been of concern to students of development.  Savvy fundraisers know that the best prospect is always an existing donor—and if you keep losing donors, pretty soon you won’t have any good prospects left.

If, instead of losing a buck fifty every time you raised six new dollars, you were able to lower that loss to say twenty cents (because no matter how hard you try, you will lose some), even as giving drops, your revenue would be looking a whole lot better.

Focusing on keeping your existing donors as donors, therefore, really makes sense (as well as cents--I know, groan).

Fundraising really does need to be the responsibility of everyone in your organization.  But not everyone needs to (or even should) be actually asking anyone for support.  Everyone can help to steward existing donors.

Start by being transparent—who gives, for what purposes.  Have an open discussion about how we (that is all of us at the organization) appreciate what our donors do for us.   Encourage your staff and volunteers to say thank you when they run into a donor—and to let donors know how their support made a difference.

Program staff can really help with stewardship—by ensuring that development staff hears about successes.  And do define success broadly.  When visitors come to your facility, be enthusiastic and talk about all the terrific things you do.  And if you can’t think of anything terrific about what you do, maybe you should be thinking about getting a different job.

While having a formal stewardship plan is an important piece of your fundraising efforts, much of stewardship does happen (yes!) serendipitously.  When I worked full time for an organization, I did a lot of my work standing in the supermarket check out line.  I would talk about things (good things; the problems need to be discussed more privately) happening at work and often, someone on the line would start telling me their experiences with our organization.  Frequently, that exchange would result in a visit from my newfound friend, and that visit almost always morphed into a gift.  And many times, this gift was from someone who had stopped giving to us because they didn’t feel valued or weren’t quite sure what their money was really supporting.

Stewardship is too often thought of as the tail-end of the development process.  And, like many things at the end of the line, it too often gets short shrift.  Put stewardship at the head and you will find that your losses will be lessened and your gains increased.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to build their resource development capacity.  To learn more about her, her online grantwriting class and Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants the only grantwriting book you really need, check out  You can buy the book directly at