Failing to Steward the Online Donor

Published by Vanessa Chase on

The scene at my desk on Tuesday: In preparing for my monthly ritual of stewarding new donors, I pulled up a spreadsheet that I share with the Gift Processing team. This spreadsheet is a way of double tracking these new donors in order to send them a welcome letter to thank them for their monthly commitment to the organization. I inherited this portfolio (and project) about 4 months ago and hadn’t developed a critical eye around what exactly I was looking at/doing in the bigger picture.

So I made a bad assumption: this spreadsheet captured every new monthly donor regardless of what channel they first gave through.

Imagine my surprise when a colleague from Gift Processing came by my office and off the cusp asked me if I’d like them to list donors who give online on the spreadsheet. Two words flashed through my mind: Mass Panic.

With monthly donors, stewardship is a key. Suddenly imagining a long list of donors who were loyally giving on a monthly basis, yet had not been thanked was a huge embarrassment in my mind. In fundraising, a simple and personal thank you is one of the most under-utilized tools for donor retention. I’d even go as far to say that it’s my secret weapon. But this incident was a good learning opportunity for the following reasons:

Lesson one: Assumptions will always bite you in the rear end. Don’t make them.

Lesson two (the important one!) – Know your stewardship plan for off-line and online donors. And if you don’t have one, create one.

It is very easy  to stick donors in channel-specific silos and let that guide the kind of interactions we have with them. Maybe a thank you phone call for someone who gave in through the mail versus an auto-reply thank you email when they give online. In this instance, those neglected online donors get an automatically generated thank you email with a neat stewardship video embedded. Yes, that means this group of online donors is being thanked though not as thoroughly. The off-line donors get a letter and personal thank you phone call. I’ll let you take a guess at which as higher engagement and retention. . .

With all of this buzz about multi-channel fundraising, there should be equal talk of multi-channel stewardship. And the secret to making it all work seamlessly is well thought out coordination.

Multi-channel integration can be very effective in maximizing meaningful interaction with donors, which is especially important at the annual level where donors receive less personal attention from the organization’s staff. Simple thank yous and other good stewardship activities are proven retention tactics, but in order to make good use of them you must know your organization’s gift acknowledgment policies and have a system for tracking incoming donors that you want to acknowledge. In my case, there is a rudimentary spreadsheet, but I also cross-reference that with a query from the database. In addition to this, it’s worthwhile to create one donor matrix that shows all gift levels, the channels of giving and the stewardship activities that happen for each of them. Outline your stewardship plans for donors, and whenever possible integrate the strategies to form a cohesive, holistic approach to donor relations.

Preventing donors from slipping through the cracks will improve the longevity and strength of their relationship with your organization, while maximizing the financial opportunities of the relationship. Always bear in mind that the annual level is your largest pool of prospects, and no matter how that prospect gave their gift, they donate. Reciprocate their compassion.

Vanessa Chase

Vanessa is a fundraiser and principle consultant at Vanessa Chase Associates, where she specialize in annual giving campaigns and training board to fundraise. Recently she has been keenly interested in the intersection of online fundraising and donor relations, and how that is reshaping the playing field. In particular how charities can become more limber to adjust with it. She is also working on a project that helps young people fulfill their philanthropic dreams through an online crowd sourcing platform.


Sara M · August 14, 2012 at 16:40

This happens at small offices too. I was shocked to find out that our book-keeper shredded United Way and other employee giving statements each quarter as she processed the checks. When she was on vacation, I found a statement in the mail. When I asked about it, her response was, “Oh, you want to see those too?”

    Vanessa · August 14, 2012 at 17:45

    Maybe the bigger issue here cross-departmental management/communication within non-profits. What do you think, Sara?

Jess Green · August 14, 2012 at 16:40

Great post Vanessa! I started at a new organization a few months back and I’m still figuring out their system of donor stewardship and deciding if there are better ways for us to do things that will help with repeat engagement. I think a lot of organizations treat all donors the same with the exception of major donors, but don’t think as much about online versus offline!

    Vanessa · August 14, 2012 at 17:43

    Great point, Jess, about the major donor versus annual donor segregation. While there’s of course high value to major donors, the annual donors are the most valuable prospect pipeline an organization has. And even if they aren’t a prospective major donor, they have the potential for a very long-term relationship with the organization. I really believe it’s important to show gratitude and honor to every donor, no matter what size the gift.

Heather · August 15, 2012 at 12:48

Great post Vanessa (and very timely as I am in the process of developing a stewardship plan)! The great part is that this particular organisation is starting from scratch so can (hopefully) take all aspects into consideration from the start. Smaller organisations do often struggle with stewardship – simply because of resources – but of course, investment in time creating the systems upfront should mean more money coming in longer term. Organisations do tend to be really good (and creative) about major/annual donors and less so about other donors. I do wonder how much of that is pressure from higher up in the organisation to honour those that have ‘kudos’?

    Vanessa · August 16, 2012 at 01:04

    Sounds like you’re in a great position, Heather! I would also agree with your question about top-down pressure regarding how donors are treated, or in some cases not. I certainly would not dispute the fact that it is important to prioritize interactions with donors, but at the end of the day you have to make sure that you’ve had a touch point with all of them. Like I mentioned to Jess, this issue of donor segregation is something that plagues the non-profit sector.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *