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Oh Captain, My Captain: Navigating the Seas of Donor Stewardship

Posted by Brooke Binkowski on Sep 17, 2015 10:00:00 AM

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Editorial note: We're trying something different today! Blog contributor Brooke Binkowski put her podcasting skills to work and made a wonderful audio version of today's blog post. No time to read? Listen to this 5 minute podcast version instead!

If you're running a nonprofit organization, one of the major parts of your work, no matter what, will be money-related: raising it, administering it, and redistributing it. And of course, finding and cultivating donors will be an important part of that work.

If you're the head of your nonprofit, you sometimes start to feel like the captain of a vessel – most of your day-to-day probably involves running around, issuing orders and guidelines, putting out fires, and getting everybody to do their share of the rowing. When you're doing all that, who has time for fundraising?

Of course, when you're sailing the high seas of the nonprofit sector, raising money becomes a matter of sink or swim.

That's where good donor stewardship comes in. Good stewardship and donor cultivation is, hands down, the one way to get people to stay supportive of your organization – but, too often, it gets ignored in favor of sexy marketing and slick public relations techniques. A polished website is wonderful, big-name endorsements great, and of course your mission is going to be important and worthwhile. But if you aren't taking care of the people providing your funding, none of it will matter for long.

If you're going to really stretch that sailing analogy to a breaking point, you're helming not just a boat, but a fleet, made up of not just you and your organization, but your donors as well. That means it's incumbent on you to tell them where you're going, where you've been, and if you're expecting any bad weather along the way.

With that in mind, here are some of the basic tenets of good nonprofit cultivation and stewardship. You can't steer your people wrong, as long as you stick to these guidelines.

Make a map

Navigating is much easier if you have an idea of where you're going. Let's start with defining cultivation and its relationship with donor stewardship. The two can be, and are, used interchangeably, but if you want to really be precise, “donor cultivation” is the art and science of building initial relationships, and “donor stewardship” is maintaining them. What would you like your relationships to be like? How much time are you willing to put into them? Mapping this out, for yourself and for others, is an essential first step. You can't get there if you don't know where you want to be.

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Set sail

Don't wait for something to happen. Start engaging your past, present, and future gift-givers! That means telling them your past achievements and future plans, and making sure that they know they are an integral part of that.

Don't give them a slick sales pitch. That's not what you're after, and neither are they. Get them involved and be as transparent as possible. A great way to get donors involved, by the way, is letting them be part of your nonprofit's daily activities. Ask them to volunteer, be part of your board, or just ask them what they think from time to time. They'll know they are important to and respected by you – and their input will help you out, too. If you really listen, people will be willing to donate more. You might say listening brings in a lot more than just a buck-an-ear. (Let's all pretend that bad pun just didn't happen.)

Don't be afraid to toss ballast

Are you getting held back by outmoded ideas or decisions? Do you do things a certain way because that's how it's always been done? Don't be afraid to change and try new things. As long as you're keeping lines of communication open, staying nimble is never a bad thing. Times change – best practices used to be just keeping people abreast of what you were doing. Now, since everybody's on social media, original content such as podcasts or articles is a great boon for organizations that want to tell their stories.

It's not really more work, when you think about how much you might have put into press releases a decade ago, but it's different – and at first blush, it's intimidating. But don't be nervous about leaving the old ways of communicating and connecting with people behind if you find something that works better!

Find the treasure

This is where a lot of people seem to lose sight of what their real treasure is – it's not the money, but the people who are helping them meet their goals. Money comes and goes, but loyalty to your cause is what will make your mission successful. If you remember where you're going and that everyone's in this together, people will sense that and appreciate it enough to stick around.

But don't forget to say thank you to the people who made it all possible, personally, if you can. List the accomplishments of the volunteers and donors, and don't take all the credit for meeting your goals. Above all, don't forget to be transparent about what you're going to be doing with the gifts of time and money you've received! You may be the captain, but a ship can't sail on its own.

Too often, people in the nonprofit sector forget the importance of the people who make their goals attainable, but every little piece is important, from the really big gifts all the way down to the dollar donations. Keeping your eye on where you want to be may not ensure easily meeting your goal, but it will help you get there, even through tempestuous times. Here's to smooth sailing, and may the wind be ever at your back.

Donor Stewardship Webinar

Topics: Fundraising, donor stewardship, nonprofit leadership

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