Failing to Steward the Online Donor

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.

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