Right on the Money: Good Stewardship Equals Good Management

A woman shakes the hand of a donor.

In the vernacular of nonprofit fundraising, stewardship means building and maintaining good relationships with donors and volunteers. The hope is that they’ll make additional contributions of money, time and effort to the organization in the future.

While stewardship at some institutions consists of hanging up plaques and throwing parties to recognize benefactors, effective donor relations is far more basic – and inexpensive – than that, says Julia S. Emlen, author of “Intentional Stewardship: Bringing Your Donors to Their Highest Level of Philanthropy” (Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 2007).

“Good stewardship is the fundamentals of a well-managed organization,” she says. “It’s not something that happens after a gift has been given.” She suggests that charities assess (PDF, 62.44 KB) how well they follow the recommendations of the “Donor’s Bill of Rights” developed by four national fundraising and philanthropy associations. She also recommends following three steps to good stewardship:

  1. Deliver your message well. Staff and board members should know and be able to communicate your organization’s mission. “If you have a clear idea of who you serve and how you serve and that it makes a difference, that’s a stewardship home run,” Emlen says. Donors and volunteers will know that their investments of time, money and effort are needed and well-spent.

    Emlen says concrete things you can do to communicate well with donors include:
    • coaching or preparing a script for anyone, from board members to administrative assistants, who speaks with donors on behalf of the organization
    • preparing an annual report (it can be electronic, and it doesn’t have to be fancy) that demonstrates how the charity has advanced its mission
  2. Develop meaningful relationships with people. Talk to potential and current volunteers and donors about their interests and how those interests might intersect with your mission, Emlen says. Then, if they make a contribution – whether of time or money – thank them in meaningful ways. “An organization that has a strong board that’s willing to call people and say thank you when they send in a small gift goes a long way in promoting philanthropy,” she says.
  3. Build trust by handling donors’ information with care and keeping them informed. Be sure you have rules about how your organization accepts, handles and acknowledges gifts. (You can find model policies online.) Include information in your annual report and in communications with individual donors about how you are using gifts. Honor confidentiality and keep donors informed about how their gifts are being used. In addition, have zero tolerance for errors in your donor database. Simple things, such as spelling a donor’s name correctly, go a long way toward establishing trust, Emlen says.
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