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Expand Your Program - Stewardship

Stewardship involves closing the circle: using gifts intelligently and reporting to donors on the use of their gifts, then thanking, informing, and involving donors to cultivate them for steadily increasing gifts over a long period of giving. Stewardship is designed to confirm the donor's wisdom in making the original gift and to draw him or her closer to the organization. This page provides the information and tools needed to become an effective steward.

Topics of Interest
Topics of Interest

What is stewardship?

Suzanne Irwin-Wells (see Major Giving Bibliography, PDF, 28KB) defines stewardship as "an attitude that should permeate your entire development program." It lies at the heart of Kay Sprinkel Grace's Infinity Loop (PDF, 73KB) that demonstrates the continually expanding relationship between an institution and its donors.

Stewardship historically referred to ensuring that the gifts of all donors are spent wisely, but it has come to mean much more than that. British fundraiser Ken Burnett (see Major Giving Bibliography, PDF, 28KB) puts it succinctly: "Every fundraiser has a responsibility to the donors, to find out for certain that the organization's programs are sound and to report back to the donor that they are."

Stewardship begins with faithfully delivering the promised benefits, but it also includes:

  • Gift acknowledgement
  • Formal donor recognition
  • Annual reports
  • Newsletters and program guides
  • Personal letters
  • Telephone calls
  • Receptions with visiting personalities and public broadcasting executives
  • Personal visits

These matters should not be left to chance, but should be part of a structured cultivation plan (see the Moves Management tool in the Donor Cultivation System, PDF, 79KB). What differentiates true stewardship from mechanical gift acknowledgement, however, lies in doing the unexpected — in communicating with donors not because it is part of a plan, but because donors are your station's best friends.

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Treating Donors as Friends

In a thoughtful gift stewardship program, station management and fundraising officers look for opportunities to share news with their donors. An investor in a program should be told how many people watched. An investor in an outreach program should receive information about how many were served. All donors should have a general sense of how the organization is doing — its program milestones, financial condition, and service to others.

The general rule of gift stewardship is to share with donors what you would share with a close friend.

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Conveying Bad News and Dealing with Donor Overload

Just as you would never withhold good news from friends, it is occasionally necessary to share bad news — a project that did not work out as expected, a program that did not reach its intended audience. There is no point in hiding disappointments. Often, admitting mistakes and listing the lessons learned can lead to deeper donor relationships.

By the same token, it is unwise to make assumptions about what donors will support or what they want to know.

The following anonymous, but real examples reveal the importance of gift stewardship by showing what happened in its absence:

  • A large museum conducted a successful capital campaign several years ago. In the wake of the campaign, it gave only perfunctory recognition to donors. The facility had a cost overrun that left it with serious debt. After its opening, attendance fell seriously short of projections, creating a problem in the operating budget. None of this was communicated to donors, who learned of it only after the local newspaper uncovered the story. One donor said: "Why didn't they come to me when they saw what was happening?" This donor might have been willing to provide further help to avoid the crisis. Instead, he was treated as an outsider, and one of the organization's best friends became a disaffected stranger.
  • At a major garden in the Midwest, the development staff decided not to ask an important donor to contribute to a small project because she had recently made a large gift to support a project they regarded as more important. When the donor learned of the project, she called to express her disappointment. "I certainly thought you would bring this to my attention," she said, "after all I've done for the garden." The development manager apologized and vowed she would never again avoid sharing significant giving activities, even if she thought the donor would not be interested.

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Stewardship as a Management Ethic

Gift Stewardship also concerns how we manage our institutions. It is part of an ethos that respects the investments others have made in our stations and uses those investments wisely, always asking, "What would our donors think?" when faced with a difficult decision. Gift stewardship recognizes that managers and board members of not-for-profit organizations are "trustees," in the formal sense, of public resources, and always seek to act in the public interest. Then, as Ken Burnett points out, we inform donors that we have done so.

Here is an interesting story where gift stewardship at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts unraveled a family mystery and closed a circle of museum donorship spanning three generations:

A donor called to say that, in going through her late mother's possessions, she had found a museum brochure concerning a painting that had been given to the museum by its director following the death of the late woman's brother in World War II. The donation had been made in memory of the late soldier and as a gesture of kindness to his mother, a museum donor. The caller had been unaware of the painting. Her mother had never mentioned it. Was it possible, she asked, that the painting was still in the collection? Major Gifts Officer Ann Ulring tracked it down. It was not only still in the collection, it was currently on display. Through her detective work, the third generation of this generous family reunited in Minneapolis to view the painting for the first time.

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Donor Cultivation System (PDF, 79KB)

KCET Stewardship Policy (PDF, 332KB)