Experiential Stewardship: The “Must Know” Guidelines for Top Tier Donors

August 10th, 2010

Robin Good recently posted a series of questions on the ADRP Listserv, basically asking this: what are you doing for your top tier donors, and have you standardized those activities in any way?  In further conversation with her, I was impressed with her application of a seldom-used term, experiential stewardship, to the work involved in donor relations.  In a nutshell, she used it to refer to the all-important act of providing meaningful experiences for your donors, ones that go beyond the routine checklist of stewardship activities.

Of course your organization will deliver a well-written and timely acknowledgment, prepare routine publications, host events and provide permanent recognition for naming opportunities. But how do you craft top-notch experiences that are both appropriate and meaningful to donors, especially to those who have made the largest gifts?  We soon realize that doing more of the same will never relate to the size and impact of the “mega gift”. In those situations, we must turn to solutions that are creative, authentic and meaningful to the donor and the organization, ones that work toward building an ongoing, genuine relationship with the donor.

I interviewed a number of donor relations professionals in preparation for this article, and was impressed by their willingness to share and the similarities of their stories.  Certain constants are worthy of mention:

  • Stewardship must be very personal.  Make sure that you know the donor as you would a friend. Structure the “benefits” your organization gives in return for a gift as you would for some one you know well and enjoy.  More than anything, donors want access to the people within the organization who are closest to the aspect of the mission that is most dear to them.  That may be students, a physician, the president, or the sports team.
  • What works for one organization or department will not necessarily work for another.  Be authentic, be “real” and plan interaction with your donors around your assets.  If you have a dynamic physician, CEO or president who is also good with people, make use of him or her.  If that’s not the case, don’t force it.  An “assignment” for that sort of leader to spend time with donors may backfire.
  • Be creative.  Look at the activities, events and methods for bringing people together available to you.  Not every “gathering” need be scheduled or scripted.  Bringing the right donor into the right situation at the right moment can unlock magic.
  • Keep good records.  Plan what you can in advance, including it in donor agreements or solicitation packages when appropriate. Gather photographs, documents and examples that make communicating your plans with donors fast and efficient.  Be meticulous with notes about those activities that are intentionally less structured, too.  By monitoring your successes (and near misses) you improve your skills and build a library of ideas to guide others.

Thank you to the professionals so willing to share their expertise for this article! They are listed here, with links to specific examples and success stories related to experiential stewardship.

Dania Beck, Greenville Hospital System
Robyn Furness-Fallin, Metro Atlanta YMCA
Robin C. Good, Lahey ClinicSamples
Karen Gruner, CHOC Children’s FoundationSample
Dan Gura, University of Tampa
Cary Henderson, University of South Carolina
Anne Mejia, Best Friends Animal Society

Written by Anne Manner-McLarty

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