Is Donor Stewardship Sinking?


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Donor Retention, Growth Hinge on Simple Steps

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to welcome Dan Delany, social impact leader and founder of Public Good Consulting, to the Abeja Solutions blog. We look forward to his insights on nonprofit management, communications and development.

“A recession is coming!”

“The tax law changes might wreak havoc on individual giving in 2019 and beyond!”

I have an economics degree and I’m closing in on 30 years of fundraising experience. Still, I cannot say that either of the statements above is true.

But I am a donor, too. My parents taught me to give of my time. That led me to a nonprofit career and, as soon as I could, to become as generous of a donor as possible.

If I had more, I would give more. But the sad truth is, I have tried to give more and failed.

4 donor stewardship fails

Below are four of my recent experiences as a donor:

A major organization raising over $200 million per year and that had a surge of interest after the 2016 election. I wanted to upgrade my monthly gift by $15 per month. But when I logged into their system, I could not figure out how to do that without contacting the organization.

Email sent. The email response? “Due to the surge in interest, it might take up to 6 weeks to hear back.” But I never heard back.

Cost: $360 not given over 2 years.

A local, community-based service provider that raises about $7 million of private funds per year with a development staff of four. Their monthly donor form seemed to require an end date, so I picked a year.

When doing my 2018 taxes, I realized I had not given to them. Why? Well, my monthly donation expired and I received only one email request to extend it.

Cost: $240 not given.

A $50 million group that raises money to support a vital institution in New York City that I go to regularly. I joined for $50 and was supposed to receive a tote. It did not arrive.

After about 3 months – I know how slow fulfillment can be – I sent an email asking about it. No reply, ever. No tote, no problem. No reply, that’s the problem. It’s been 2 years since I joined.

Cost: $100 not given.

Finally, a large animal charity bringing in over $200 million. I used their website to make a memorial donation when a friend’s pet passed away. And I did a second one, too. On the third time, the online form did not work.

I sent an email, I thought, to the development office. The response came back from a third-party customer service center and laid the problem at the feet of the department running the website.

After two more emails I gave up and found the head of development’s email and wrote. I got a response from an associate and it mimicked the one from the outside customer service center. I gave up. Went to another animal charity and have not been back.

Cost: At least $250 not given.

High cost of neglect

Two years, $950 not given. To just four charities. By just one person. I cannot be the only one.

What if there are 1 million others not giving $950 over the last two years? That is almost $1 billion lost, when plugging the holes in our own stewardship boat could be so simple.

  • Follow through on a promise to follow up.

  • A phone call to remind a monthly donor to renew and say thanks.

  • A response, even one saying the tote was ‘while supplies lasted’ and I was too late.

  • And a one-line email from the head of development thanking a donor for caring enough to reach out and saying that as soon as the form is fixed someone else would let me know.

I do this work. I know the capacity issues nonprofits, large and small, face. Still I wonder, how did we forget that a bit of a personal touch can go a long way?

Maybe it’s the drive to be efficient with technology. Maybe it’s the elusive hunt for HNWI (high-net-worth-individuals) and UHNWI (ultra-high-net-worth-individual) donors. Maybe it’s just a symptom of the culture change brought on by social media.

Small fixes with huge potential

Still, I know stewardship works. It’s worked on me.

One group offered to helped me to update my credit card info when my monthly donation lapsed. This was because my card got compromised.

That organization’s monthly gift doubled – both because they really needed it as a human service charity operating in a financially-failing city and state – and because of a bit of extra effort.

I’ve seen 15-year $25 donors make 7-figure bequests. And while there is never a way to know for sure, I bet those hand-signed thank you letters and special acknowledgements after 5 or 10 years of giving helped a lot.

So, stop worrying about the next fundraising storm you can’t control – and focus on solving a problem you can.

Don’t let stewardship sink. Keep it strong. Remember, donors are people, not records or transactions. Find opportunities for the personal touch.

That way, you’ll face a great new problem: needing a bigger boat!


Dan Delany is approaching 30 years as a social impact leader with deep experience in fundraising, strategy, communications and constituent engagement. He is also a passionate supporter of many causes and wants to see the nonprofit sector capture all the resources it can to do its vital work of keeping our society strong and vibrant for all people.

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