How is your Firm's Stewardship?

by Natasha Dresner, Mentor, JCamp 180

Tips to managing issues that will help your nonprofit run more effectively.

Reprinted with permission of The Berkshire Eagle

If you work with a nonprofit organization, chances are you have to do some fundraising to support your mission. Experience and data suggest that getting more money from an existing donor is always easier than getting even $1 from a new donor. That makes stewarding existing donors your top priority.

Yet, so many nonprofits do it poorly. Why is that, and how do you improve it?

Organizational culture could be the cause. Take a closer look at your organization and its performance in other areas. Is it doing a good job stewarding its staff, board members, volunteers, and other constituents?

If it's a solid no, then start addressing your lack of donor stewardship by fostering a culture of stewardship throughout the rest of the organization. I can promise you it will do your nonprofit a lot of good.

If your answer is a solid yes, then keep looking through the other possible reasons listed below. But, as it often happens, if your answer is somewhere in between, you must do both - address the cultural issue, and then look for some other reasons responsible for the lack of donor stewardship.

Preserving the order in which these two things are done is critical, because changing the culture isn't the same as changing an Internet provider. For this type of change to stick, it must come from within. In other words, only by addressing the cultural issue first will you be able to affect people's behaviors in a way that will, in turn, empower them to make other more tactical changes to improve donor stewardship.

Here are some other factors to consider:

Lack of Leadership

Lack of leadership - both from your paid staff and lay people - is another possible reason. This is obviously a much bigger problem of which poor donor stewardship is just a symptom. If this problem isn't recognized and addressed in a timely fashion, it may do some serious damage to the organization overall as well as to its fundraising capacity in particular.

This is such a sensitive and multidimensional issue that hiring a third party professional is probably the best way to go. The consultant will assess the situation, conduct board self-evaluation, perform other necessary evaluations and data collection, and then propose a personalized course of action to build new and/or engage old leadership.

Fear of Fundraising

This could be yet another reason behind the donor stewardship challenge. We all know about fear: it is irrational; it penetrates and paralyzes us from within. Since organizations are run by people, their fears of fundraising can penetrate and paralyze the organization, too.

If this is your challenge the solution is education, training, and practice. How do we fight fear? By facing it. Have your staff and board participate in a professionally facilitated educational session that creates a safe space for people to discuss and address their fears of fundraising. Paired with further education about the culture of philanthropy, the discussion of different roles, and the development of other steps the organization will need to take to continue on its new path, you can start affecting the change on an individual as well as an organizational level.

Limited Resources

Limited resources are a common reason (and excuse) used by organizations. Limited resources in and of themselves are not a bad thing because they promote creativity. And, they are not an unusual reality for most organizations, including for-profit businesses. How we choose to use those resources is what really matters.

In this particular case, if we are to invest them in proper stewardship, it will result in additional resources - problem solved! If you don't have a fundraising professional then invest in hiring the right person or people, either part-time or full-time, depending on the scope of your fundraising efforts.

Also remember that while your entire board has to be involved in fundraising by making their own contributions and by helping you in other ways, creating a dedicated fundraising or development committee will help you to offset your limited resources.

Poor Planning

As with lack of leadership, this could be a much larger problem but, more often than not, it's specific to fundraising planning. In other words, even the organizations that do a good job at having their strategic and working plans current and active often do not have clear fundraising and stewardship plans.

As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. So invest in comprehensive fundraising planning and training on the institutional level.


Confusion over fundraising roles and responsibilities among staff, board, and volunteers is a frequent contributor to poor stewardship. Imagine being on a small plane with a pilot and a flight attendant who are confused about their roles and responsibilities. Would you like to be a passenger on that plane? I wouldn't. That's why it is essential for the staff, board, and volunteers involved in fundraising to establish a strong partnership built on clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

The key is open, frequent, and early communication between all of the players as well as continuing education. As with fear of fundraising, a facilitated gathering, which clearly defines roles and responsibilities - taking into account the strengths and preferences of board members, volunteers, and staff - will benefit the organization tremendously. Just make sure that those discussions are ongoing, driven by the individual goals and realities of each organization, and result in written agreements like job descriptions, individual portfolios, and a schedule of ongoing meetings to support individual and group efforts, etc.


A lack of written fundraising policies can be another reason for stewardship difficulties. Does your organization have a gift acceptance policy? What about a donor recognition and stewardship policy? An endowment policy (if relevant)? A naming opportunity policy? Having these policies in place allows your organization to have clear processes and procedures in core fundraising areas like stewardship. It also promotes further transparency and accountability, which, in turn, improves your ability to fundraise.

No Feedback Structure

The last reason I'd like to offer is the lack of a functional feedback structure. This, once again, could be fundraising specific or representative of a larger cultural challenge within the nonprofit.

Do you have systems in place to regularly receive feedback from your constituencies on everything you do? Is there a culture within your organization to solicit honest feedback during one-on-one sessions, or staff and board meetings? Answering these questions helps you understand whether your organization supports a culture of feedback.

If the culture is in place, but donor stewardship is still suffering and other reasons aren't responsible for it, then it's time to look at what kind of feedback structure you utilize with your donors.

Do you ever ask if the donors appreciate how they are being stewarded - both qualitatively and quantitatively? Do you create opportunities for the donors to provide feedback in person, by phone, via a survey, or in a focus group? How else will you know if they are happy and engaged with your organization?

So pick your reason or reasons, and commit to making some positive changes as an organization. Just remember that doing it with the right people around the table is key. Remember that doing something once doesn't create a lasting and transformative effect. Remember that as you get new board members, volunteers and staff, you need to go through the same trainings and discussions as before, and be ready not to arrive at the same exact agreements and conclusions.

But, above all, remember that fundraising is about building relationships. Saying thank you to your donor after closing a gift should only be the first step in your stewardship process.