Stewardship in the nonprofit sector refers to taking care of those who support your organization. For those in the business of raising money, stewardship receives a lot of attention. It’s more than just saying thank you. Stewardship is about understanding donors, what they like and effectively finding ways to connect them with the work of the organization. It’s worth noting that large nonprofit organizations recognize the importance of donor stewardship by appointing senior people to focus exclusively on stewardship.
Why is it important? Because effective stewardship builds loyalty. If you feel good about an organization, you’re more likely to think of them in your giving plans. Whether you are able to give $100 or $100 million a year, organizations want you to be top of mind, to think of them first. Those who understand how to steward their donors have the highest donor retention rates and are most effective at getting donors to increase their giving over time.
Think of it like a restaurant. You find a new restaurant you love. What is it you love about the place? Maybe it’s just the food, but more often it’s the food and the way you’re treated while you’re there. The Maître D smiles and thanks you for coming back, your Server is warm and truly engaging. Maybe the Chef comes out to deliver something complimentary they’re testing for the menu or to ask how your meal is. These are all examples of stewardship. They make you feel special, which makes the food taste better and makes you want to return again.
Let’s face it, nonprofits should think like restaurateurs. Despite their best intention, some nonprofits do the equivalent of serving fast food when their customers are hoping for something more refined – and the reverse is true. Organizations have to know not only what level of service they need to provide,then they need to execute on the expectation. Many organizations focus on the basics in donor stewardship: they give donors a menu and hope the server gets the order right and that the food is cooked correctly. But think of how great you feel when you arrive to a warm welcome at the door, are seated in your favorite booth without requesting it, and receive a complimentary appetizer – just because you are a loyal customer.
The fact is it’s not that easy to provide that level of customer service. It takes individual attention, a focus on detail, coordination throughout the organization and personal knowledge of donors. Relationships take time to build, and many organizations don’t have the resources to provide the kind of high touch environment that could engage donors more thoroughly.
But it’s worth taking the time because 70% of repeat donors will continue to give if they feel well cared for while only 27% of first time donors ever give again. Where did those 43% go? To a different restaurant. Getting donors in the door, seated and ordering from the menu is only half of the job. Organizations have got to figure out what they are really good at, customize the menu accordingly, and execute flawlessly. These personal touches for restaurants are down payments on return visits.
My advice: make sure you’re not providing a fast food experience when your donors are looking for white tablecloth service. The opposite is just as bad. Organizations can set themselves apart from their peers by finding ways to make their donors (they really are customers, after all) more comfortable when they come in for a “meal”.