Stewardship Matters

When I first started doing fundraising workshops—about a decade ago—I was dismayed to discover that the most basic of all things fundraising wasn’t happening.  Indeed, at one workshop there were 35 discrete organizations represented. “How many of you,” I asked, thinking this was a rhetorical question, “send a thank you letter to every single donor for every single gift, regardless of size?”

You are probably ahead of me here and won’t be surprised to find out that the number was….2.  Two organizations out of 35.  About one-half of one percent regularly thanked every donor for every gift.

Things have gotten better.  When I ask that question now, most of the participants raise their hands.  But I wonder.

About a quarter of people I speak with who regularly make a charitable gift tell me about organizations that never so much as acknowledge the gift, let along actually thank them for their generosity.  And let’s not even discuss the percentage of donors who ever hear from the organization how their gift made a difference.

Ask my sister—about the most generous person I know--once said after she had call someone to find out if her gift was ever received, “That’s the last time I’ll give her anything.”

You do not want your donors to feel that way about you.

In fundraising, how you treat your donors is called “Stewardship.”  It is such a basic part of a successful fund development program, and yet many many organizations don’t do it well.  Many others don’t do it at all. And many of those who do it, only do so as an excuse to ask for another gift.

“Thank you for your gift.  Now make another one.”

There are two immutable facts about fundraising.  The first is that it is all about relationships.  The second, which follows seamlessly on the first, is that your best prospect is an existing donor.

To that second fact, I’ll add a caveat:  if you have treated that donor well.

A third immutable fact is that donors cease to donate to an organization mainly because the organization has not responded appropriately to that donor’s generosity.

Honestly, it is far easier—and far less costly—to get a happy donor to make a follow on gift than it is to get a prospect to make a first gift.  But we focus on finding that first time donor and ignore those who have already shown their love.

What should you do?  It’s easy:

  • Thank every person who supports you in any way and tell them how their support matters
  • Before you approach a donor for a follow-on gift, connect in some personal way. Let them know that you value their support and are thrilled that they are a part of your community
  • When you get a gift, don’t just thank the donor, engage with him or her and find out why they wanted to help and how else they would like to be involved.  You can do this as part of your acknowledgement or—better yet—in your follow up thank you from you, a board member, or a fellow donor.
  • Figure out a strategy for every level or type of donor you have.  Think about how next year you can better treat them and get them more engaged.

Stewardship matters.  Make it the focus of your fundraising.  You will discover that good things happen when you show gratitude.

Janet Levine is grateful that she gets to work with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and develop better boards.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet to request a free, 30-minute consultation.