Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Challenge yourself: Do you steward gifts or care for your donors?

For the past two nights, I've been more sleepless than usual. You see, I've been wrestling with this idea that struck me in a meeting and hasn't left yet. I am always asked what's the difference between donor relations now and 10 years ago or how to tell a high functioning shop apart from one that just goes through the motions. Well, my friends, I think I finally have my elevator speech answer. The best and most sophisticated shops relate and care for donors, the rest steward gifts. Some of you just paused for a moment to think, getting it instantly, some of you pawned this difference off as semantics and yet others are still scratching their heads thinking, Lynne I haven't finished my coffee yet. Take it from a caffeine free girl, it's not the coffee, it's the idea of it all. Can they be mutually exclusive?

I often say to my teammates and anyone else who will listen, if it doesn't benefit the donor, we don't do it. And I think that demonstrates our donor focus really well. But taking it a step further, I am now resonating with the question of not just why and who does it benefit, but are we stewarding the gift or caring for a donor?

I have a few examples to add to the debate and then I welcome your thoughts now that I have sufficiently stirred the pot. And yes, I am aware that in some instances, stewarding gifts can help us care for donors, but not really, not holistically. Being accountable is the right thing to do and in many cases a simple requirement, it must go further, how does this nurture our relationship?

I have been on a violent crusade for years against gifts, plaques and honor rolls. The reasons behind this attack of bayonets and battleships have been numerous and surface, but what I was failing to realize all along now is that these types of efforts steward the gift and recognize it but don't holistically account for the humanness of the donor. I don't mean to go all philosophically militant here, but for me it is a large shift in my world view happening. It is a seismic synthesis of things that many of us have believed for years, explained in a manner that we can all grasp.

So besides physical gifts and recognition, what does this mean?

Let's take some events, like scholarship receptions or donor recognition receptions. We tell the donor we want to thank them, then we prescribe exactly how they will be thanked by us, and they better like it... Time, place, food, people, program, everything is dictated by us an of course their level of giving. What if it was the other way around? One of our shop's greatest successes was a little postcard that thanked the donor for their impact and then invited them to campus when they were near to meet with those that benefit from their support. Donors ate it up, because it truly was about them, on their terms, and valued their relationship.

Let's also take giving societies or gift clubs, the very nature of which is predicated on gift recognition, not donor caregiving. My value to a certain organization as a donor is dependent on my giving, not my volunteer involvement, closeness of relationship, years of involvement or any other factor, just one shallow measure of my dedication, my wallet.

By now many of you are thinking I may not have taken my meds today, or mixed the blue and yellow pills. NOPE. I'm just thinking smarter. So why happens now?
Do we chuck all of the efforts we are making and start over? I wish it were that simple, but it's not. WE have to reroute the trains, solve this problem, and effectively find a way to measure and build without predication on one shallow measure of a human, their gifts.
It's about impact, stories, vibrant communications, personal cultivation and relationship building but it's also about so much more.

I haven't yet figured out what this new paradigm shift looks like in its entirety yet, but I am rapidly building pieces and will assure that with more sleepless nights, we'll get closer, with your help I can get there faster. What do you think? I think I'm onto something big here. Can you help us move forward? Play devils advocate? What am I missing? I would love to hear your thoughts as always. But please, Don't lose any sleep over it. Leave the restlessness to me...




  1. Great post! We found that many donors didn't like the large annual donor receptions. A few just wanted one-on-one lunches with their student recipient so they could not only give their support but also insight and knowledge. The rest have been happy about just getting a thank you card from a student each year. I don't think that all receptions, giving clubs or recognition items should be thrown out the window. These things have inspired other donors to give and the donors have felt appreciated by them but I agree there's not a one size fits all donor stewardship because when I've met with donors and asked them what's important to them most say it's seeing the true impact of their gift (which is different in each case) and not just having their name in print somewhere.

  2. Great post! I think you have hit upon a very important aspect of donor relations - being donor focused and caring about the donor! I like it and want to give it more thought. I totally agree that one size doesn't fit everyone and we need to communicate with donors to learn what is important to them.

  3. That's so right one size doesn't fit all, I think the important thing there is aside from the gifts or plaques or whatever sign of gratitude you give to your donors, you could also include words that will give them more inspiration and would touch their hearts.

  4. I'm brand new to the donor relations field, and I was taken aback by all of the "Best Practice" stewardship programs adopted by many non-profits. I feel uncomfortable writing form letters to be signed by our CEO for extremely generous gifts. I see the same people time after time at our donor recognition events, and our format never significantly varies. We continue to use the same generic programs to thank and appreciate our donors because we don't have the time or resources to individualize our stewardship practices and make them human.

    My feeling is that the creative use of technology can take these old practices and make them individualized. Photo booths or recorded interviews at events linking donors and recipients then be shown and shared. Highly personalized emails with better use of data mining. Social media polls or other interactive engagements with donors, conducted during events (i.e. "text *99 if you feel scholarship is your highest priority in the next year"). I don't know if any of these ideas would work with our constituents, but I do know that every little bit I can do to personalize our contact with our donors goes a lot farther in building trust and strengthening their bond to our institution.

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