Friday, October 14, 2016

Is Perpetual Stewardship a Myth?

Lately, folks have been posting great questions to listservs about donors who have been placed in "perpetual stewardship" and bench-marking for plans around those generous people who have "made their final gift". I'm kind of miffed by this entire concept and am wondering if placing a donor into perpetual stewardship isn't a myth or isn't taking the easy way out. I think it undervalues and underestimates a donor and at times can be dangerous. 

First, let's explain why the practice occurs. Gift officers are measured on dollar goals usually and have to carry portfolios of donors ranging from 75-200 people. From time to time they work with prospect management teams to cycle donors through their portfolio. One way to remove a donor from your portfolio is to mark them in "permanent stewardship" status so that you can bring in a donor who has the chance of giving more or helping reach dollar goals. 

But where does this donor go? They often fall off of a cliff in reality. Meaning, there is no one assigned to people in "perpetual stewardship" and thus and therefore, the personal contact stops. One way to guarantee that a donor won't give again is to take their visit behavior from once or twice a year to nothing, but I understand the need to prioritize. The conundrum lies in how we determine when a donor is done giving and how many attempts we make before we have them walk the plank.

Planned gifts are no excuse. We know that once a donor commits to a deferred gift, their annual giving goes up, also ALL planned gifts are revocable given a good attorney so that logic doesn't play out. Someone that says they've made their final gift to us is another excuse. Final gift though to what? Have we just not found another good match for their philanthropic desires? What about the fact that the average lifespan of a fundraiser is 16 months? Could it be a personality glitch? Donors are randomly assigned based on geography or area of giving, what if we assigned donors based off of strengths or personality types? Donor doesn't give with one person at one point in time after huge philanthropic giving before, why don't we try someone else? Just because I tell Johnny that I'm done giving, doesn't mean Jane won't spark my fire. But once a donor is placed in "permanent stewardship" Jane doesn't even get the chance...

So what are the solutions? I really thing being more donor focused and realizing that preference is subjective is one path to success. Another would be a clear, consistent, definition of what it takes to be exited from a portfolio. Am I placed in permanent stewardship because I won't take your calls for a visit? Let us not be so hasty to write someone off. And if we place someone in this Oz of "permanent stewardship" let's also ensure that there is still someone there to take care of them, treat them well and meet their needs. We don't put our friends on a shelf. Why do we put donors there?  

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you have donors in "perpetual stewardship"? Is this a legitimate donor category at your organization? What do you do for them and who is responsible?



  1. Hi Lynne,
    At the University of St. Thomas (based in Minnesota), our Donor Relations team introduced a formal program that we internally call "Migrated Stewardship." The qualifications are clear - it is for donors whom we feel have already made a major gift and likely won't give another major gift in the next campaign. These prospects are assigned to Donor Relations. We do our best to not make the prospect feel like they have been "transferred" but rather that - due to their significant contributions to the university - they will be hearing more formally from the Donor Relations team. Also, we acknowledge that these donors are often strong annual fund givers; we partner closely with the Annual fund team and actively include migrated stewardship donors in solicitations. Our retention among this group last year was 80%. We do some additional special touches for them as well, like birthday cards from our team and hand-written notes on gift acknowledgments. Hope that helps.
    Carol Wilkie
    Director of Donor Relations
    University of St. Thomas

  2. Good morning,
    At the university I work for, we have been discussing the idea of the "stewardship officer," a member of the donor relations function who, like fundraisers, manages a portfolio of donors who meet the criteria you describe here for perpetual stewardship. The stewardship officer then continues the rate of contact the donor is accustomed to and works to maintain engagement with the donor to ensure they are not forgotten. We have yet to implement this strategy but it is a hot topic of conversation on our team and I hope we can make major progress on it over the next 18 months or so.

  3. This post is so timely for me! I literally have this topic on my to-do list today. We are starting a formal "permanent stewardship" program here at Stony Brook University, and just defining who is in it and what expectations are for these donors is a task in and of itself. I look forward to hearing what is working for others (and I think I'll get in touch with Carol at University of St. Thomas!). Thanks, Lynne!

  4. At Skidmore College, we assign a member of the Donor Relations team to these donors. It ensures that they are on someone's radar screen and as you point out, DR staff are more stable than the average gift officer. We just started rolling it out this year and I have high hopes that it will be successful for everyone, especially the donor!