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How to create a donor stewardship plan: A step-by-step guide

December 12, 2021
Three nonprofit professionals gather at a desk with a laptop and several papers to create a donor stewardship plan together.

donor stewardship plan is a detailed outline of a nonprofit organization’s processes and strategies to keep donors engaged by showing them their impact and building long-lasting relationships.

There are many stewardship techniques that organizations can use to connect with donors, and creating a clear plan ensures your nonprofit maintains a regular communication schedule and your efforts are as effective as possible.

In this article, we’ll break down the four most important steps to crafting a donor stewardship plan.

Step 1:  Identify donor giving levels.

Start your stewardship plan by categorizing your donors based on their gift frequency, size, and type. These categories will be your donor giving levels and will serve as the framework for your stewardship plan. 

While you should value and show appreciation for every gift you receive, allocating more attention to supporters who are or have the potential to become major donors will ensure your organization has long-term support.

While you can get incredibly granular in your donor categories, the following levels are an excellent place to start:

New donors

Because new donors haven’t built a relationship with your nonprofit yet, they typically start with a small gift. For many of these donors, this is just the beginning of their connection to your organization. They want to learn more about your purpose and impact.

Our recommendation: Build trust with new donors and give them confidence that your organization can make the impact that they want to see in the world.

Loyal donors

Loyal donors have developed trust in your organization and have been giving to your nonprofit regularly, often through recurring donations. While they provide your organization with a reliable flow of donations, these donors are likely still giving relatively small amounts. 

Our recommendation: Cultivate loyal donors through regular communication and diversified engagement opportunities. Then, watch their giving level increase.

Major donors

Major donors have chosen to partner with your organization at a high giving level. They’re fully committed to your cause and should be given special attention to stay engaged. 

Our recommendation: Nurture these donors to give at an even higher level and encourage them to continue giving with personal, one-on-one relationship-building activities.

In addition to segmenting your donors by donation type, you might also create segments according to their communication preferences or demographics. Building your stewardship program around these different segments allows you to strategically connect with supporters and increase their contributions. 

Step 2: Determine your donor stewardship activities.

You have a wide range of stewardship methods to choose from when creating your stewardship plan. First, brainstorm techniques to use with each donor level. Then, think about specific techniques for acknowledgment, recognition, reporting, and cultivation.

Use these ideas to get started:

  • Send a personalized gift receipt immediately after receiving a gift.
  • Focus thank-you's on the donor and the difference that they make.
  • Host appreciation events, such as lunches, galas, town halls, and office tours.
  • Report on the impact of donors’ gifts and the work your nonprofit does.
  • Send articles and other information of interest to major donors.
  • Create exclusive giving societies with perks to build a sense of community.
  • Send handwritten cards on dates like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. 
  • Highlight donors in newsletters and social media.
  • Survey donors for feedback on how to improve engagement.
  • Invite donors to participate in special volunteer opportunities.

Make sure you have a selection of stewardship techniques for each donor level across different media and periods of time. Review your ideas until you’re confident you’ve chosen the ones that will have the greatest impact with each donor group.

Step 3: Document your stewardship plan and matrix.

You’re now ready to put your stewardship plan to paper. Follow these basic steps:

  1. Consider stewardship from the perspective of the donor. What should the donor experience be at each stage of the process for each of your donor giving levels? 
  2. Craft processes, policies, and procedures that will ensure your ideas get implemented. How will your team carry out each step? What challenges will they face?
  3. Create a schedule that clearly outlines the specific points and timeframes of how and when you’ll communicate with donors. What reports will you create? How many different versions will you need to produce? Where and when will you publish them? How will you share them with your donors?

Once you’ve considered these questions, compile your answers to the previous steps into a stewardship matrix like the one shown below. Your stewardship matrix should organize your stewardship efforts according to donor level, timeline, and engagement type, making it easy to follow through on every step of the plan. 

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Step 4: Evaluate your stewardship plan.

Your plan should be a living document that you change and improve as you receive feedback and new ideas. Schedule a regular review process to assess your plan and gather feedback and data. For best results, look at both quantitative and qualitative information by:

  • Tracking key performance indicators, such as retention rates, conversion rates, and average gift amounts.
  • Surveying donors about the strengths and weaknesses of your stewardship program. 

Use this collected information to develop new stewardship activities, engage both new and existing donors at every giving level, and continuously refine your stewardship plan. 

In summary

Whether you’re a team of one or a department of 20, creating a defined stewardship plan will help you improve your donor retention rate, encourage donors to give more, and build a meaningful community that they can believe in.

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