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Donor Stewardship Best Practices for Consistent Messaging and Engagement

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Published December 18, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Nonprofits must keep a consistent cadence in donor engagements for numerous reasons, but mitigating churn is at the top of that list.

Effective donor stewardship is the process of strengthening your connections with supporters to protect their long-term commitment to your cause. This involves thanking them for their contributions, communicating with them regularly, and interacting with them in personal, memorable ways.

Below, we outline donor stewardship strategies for nonprofits to use throughout the year, including cost-effective ways to organize and employ them in a steady, dependable manner to keep supporters interested in your work.

However, keep in mind that these donor stewardship practices are just a starting point. Your nonprofit should always customize its donor relations to reflect your organization’s needs, goals, and brand.

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4 Types of Donor Stewardship Touchpoints

There are four key categories of donor stewardship best practices to consider. Planned, consistent stewardship activities in each category will help build long-term relationships with your supporters.

1. Acknowledgment

Your donor stewardship plan should make each individual feel like their involvement is unique and indispensable. This means every touchpoint must acknowledge donors’ support and express how much it means to your work without seeming repetitive or impersonal.

Establish a protocol for timely thank-you notes after someone contributes to your cause. For example, after a donation, you can:

  • Write a personal thank-you letter to first-time donors.
  • Send a branded thank-you email to returning midsize donors.
  • Make a phone call to express your gratitude and offer ongoing engagement opportunities to major donors.

If it’s a donor’s first time giving to your nonprofit organization, consider a welcome email series. This may include 1 to 4 emails introducing the new donor to your work, upcoming goals, and other ways to remain involved.

2. Recognition

Beyond initial thank you’s, stewarding donors should include opportunities for wider recognition. For example, your nonprofit may want to share a donor spotlight on social media or your newsletter, recognizing supporters for the impact of their gifts.

You can also extend your organization’s recognition efforts into the agenda at your annual nonprofit gala or quarterly donor appreciation events. These gatherings are perfect opportunities to hand out awards, share stories about loyal donors’ contributions, and celebrate your community of supporters.

Sending small gifts or incentives to donors throughout the year is another way to recognize their support. This could be as simple as sending branded swag to new recurring donors or people who sign up for volunteer opportunities.

3. Reporting

Reporting is another donor stewardship effort nonprofits must execute regularly to define and measure against their average donor retention rate, collect essential donor data, and inform their ongoing stewardship strategies. Plus, donors need to know how your organization uses their gifts. Sharing your reports with donors is a powerful way to build trust.

Show donors the specific impact your nonprofit has had through periodic updates in your newsletter and through an annual impact report. You can even spotlight key data periodically on your social media channels to remain accountable to donors.

When supporters know their investment in your cause makes a difference, they will likely stick around.

4. Ongoing Engagement

In addition to recognizing donors for their contributions and involvement, offering ways for supporters to remain engaged is equally as critical.

Provide opportunities to further connect with your mission and community to keep the door open for exposure to your organization’s influence. This helps foster their charitable side and amplifies their intrinsic calling to remain part of your team.

Plan quarterly activities for donors to join, such as:

  • In-person meetups with fellow supporters at local restaurants, parks, or walking paths
  • Volunteer days that align with supporters’ passions and interests
  • Exclusive events like office tours, luncheons, or coffee with your founder

You can also send correspondence that doesn’t center around fundraising events but highlights how you want to connect with them out of genuine care. For example, you could send a holiday card, donor anniversary card, or donor survey. The purpose of these types of outreach isn’t to ask for additional gifts but rather to keep your engagement with the donor fresh and personal.

Define Your Donor Cohorts for Effective Stewardship

Tailor your donor stewardship actions based on their relationship with your nonprofit. For example, you may organize a thank-you luncheon for major donors and send a handwritten thank-you note for a first-time donor’s gift to your spring crowdfunding campaign.

You can define donor cohorts based on giving frequency, donation amount, demographics, communication preferences, or other characteristics. At a minimum, group your donor base into these four crucial categories:

  • New donors: These supporters have given to your nonprofit for the first time. They require stewardship actions to make them feel welcomed and encourage their next gift.
  • Recurring donorsThese current donors give to your nonprofit regularly. They need stewardship actions that keep them engaged and feeling appreciated to encourage continued support and potentially increase their donation amount.
  • Mid-level donors: These supporters contribute significant gifts to your nonprofit but aren’t yet major donors. They need stewardship actions that highlight the special role they play in your work and open conversations about opportunities for major gifts.
  • Major donorsThese supporters have given large donations to support your cause. They require high-touch stewardship to ensure they know how much their gift means to your work and how your nonprofit uses it. Donor stewardship focuses on keeping major donors engaged for future substantial funding requests.

First-Time Donors from Peer-to-Peer Campaigns

Also, consider subcategories within these groups that may need more customized stewardship. For example, Classy’s The State of Modern Philanthropy report found that 80% of people who donate to a peer-to-peer campaign on Classy are brand new to the nonprofit.

These donors likely discovered your organization through a friend or family member rather than traditional marketing. Your initial conversations with these supporters must introduce them to your work and show why they should continue to engage with your cause beyond the peer-to-peer fundraiser. Donor cultivation for first-time supporters from peer-to-peer campaigns may include:

  • Using language that reminds the donor that their trusted peer is already a supporter
  • Sending a welcome series with bite-sized information to connect the donor to your cause
  • Providing exclusive swag to new donors from the campaign
  • Creating an emotional connection between the donor’s first gift and your cause
  • Leveraging peer-to-peer campaign data from your donor database as part of your donor management approach

Follow a Set Timeline for Donor Stewardship

Many nonprofits have great ideas for building relationships with donors. However, without a communications strategy, they can fall short of their goal. Tying each of your stewardship actions to a specific timeline can help with organization and consistency.

After listing the donor stewardship tasks per donor cohort to implement for the four categories above, map them in a calendar or add time-specific details. For example:

  • Thank-you email: Have a template ready to send within 24 hours of every gift.
  • Donor spotlight: Include in your quarterly newsletter for donors who gave over a certain amount.
  • Impact report: Send an annual report to all donors, volunteers, sponsors, partners, and board members to celebrate their influence on your achievements.
  • Supporter meetup: Host donors monthly. Send invitations one month in advance of the meetup to segmented groups to mingle and discuss common interests. Then, send reminders two weeks and one week before the event.

Mapping out a timeline for donor stewardship keeps the momentum going and ensures you stay on track with the efforts you want to achieve.

Leverage Donor Stewardship Best Practices to Mitigate Churn and Strengthen Relationships

Including regular cultivation and solicitation communications within your overall stewardship timeline encourages additional gifts and keeps donors engaged. Check out Classy’s Stewardship Planner for an easy matrix to reference when outlining your donor stewardship program.

Copy Editor: Ayanna Julien


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