At the very least, most advancement leaders give lip service to the notion that donor stewardship is important. Thanking donors and recognizing them as appropriate are the baseline activities of solid advancement programs. Expressing gratitude to our donors is the right thing to do ethically and tactically. As the old saying goes, “Stewardship of the last gift is the first step of cultivation for the next gift.” Donors continue to invest in us and our work when they feel valued and appreciated.
But donor cultivation is an fascinating art. Cultivating a donor has been compared to the courting of a potential mate. There are many similarities between building a stronger relationship with a donor and attempting to woo a romantic partner — spending purposeful time with them, attempting to understand their interests and dreams, and having discussions of consequences that can result in significant “asks” are a few.
Some might say that a hallmark of romantic flirting is making the other aware of your feelings even when you are apart. And while my wife may express surprise that I would write these words, the well-timed sending of flowers, a card or note, or a personal memento are known to be received with enthusiasm. And this is where the similarity between donor cultivation and romantic cultivation appears to diverge.
Rarely do our advancement programs have in place processes for letting donors know we are thinking of them even when they haven’t made a recent commitment to us. Rarely do we reach out to our donors with a personalized token of appreciation “just because.” Rarely do we send the courting equivalent of flowers, candy, or a note. In fact, for many advancement programs, the simple coordination of sending birthday cards to major donors appears to be problematic.
Just recently, I checked into a Hampton Inn and was surprised by a basket of goodies that awaited me in my room. The next morning I asked the front desk about the gift. Their response? “We are pleased you continue to choose us and we wanted you to know it.” This wasn’t part of an formal promotion and I’m sure they gave the basket to others, but the gesture made a positive impact on me. I wasn’t expecting it and it strengthened my feeling of being a valued hotel guest.
When we pause and give good thought to donor stewardship we quickly realize that, for our key donors, at least, we should be reaching out to them beyond expressing gratitude for their giving. We should be courting them and letting them know they are important to us. And that courting should include random acts of stewardship that are implemented just because we value them – even when they haven’t just given us the lead gift in our campaign. We should delight in our donors and, when they give in support of our work, we should be uncompromising in our efforts to extend our gratitude to them. But just as important, I think, is how we steward and pay attention to them when they haven’t just given to us.