Stop talking about ‘stewardship’ – start doing it

Sad though it is to admit, you do get to a certain point in life where you start to notice certain themes, dynamics, characters and scenarios you’ve come across many times before – sometimes over and over – to the point that you can anticipate how things will play out long before that point is reached in reality.

Thankfully this doesn’t have to mean you’re also past being surprised and enlightened by something entirely new. I know that I need the surprise and delight delivered by those entirely new things that make life (including your fundraising) better, more fun, easier, or that expand your thinking, and give you an ‘a-ha!’ moment. And I’m grateful that those ‘a-ha!’ moments still happen often enough to help me get through the other kind of seen it before things – the ones it’s sometimes hard not to eye-roll at – that they’re frequent enough to have stopped me from tipping over into full-blown curmudgeonliness. So far, anyway.

But, a few days’ ago, an old nemesis reared its head again and years of the same conversation all came flooding back. It’s always the same, and goes like this:

Fundraiser: “We need to invest in supporter stewardship, to increase loyalty and reduce attrition.”

Fundraiser’s boss: “Great idea.”

F: “It’s really important that we don’t continually ask donors. We need to make space to make sure they feel appreciated. Show them the impact of their donations. Give them a break from being asked, so they can feel good about what they’re helping to achieve.”

FB: “I couldn’t agree more. I feel uncomfortable about how much we ask donors as it is. It feels like the right thing to do to just give something back.”

F: “Great – I was hoping you’d agree – so, I’ll include a pure stewardship communication in the year plan, without any income against it – or, perhaps just a small amount of income, because some people will probably give anyway, even if we don’t ask…”

FB: “Er, well, we can’t really justify the expenditure if it isn’t going to achieve an ROI of at least 3:1.”

F: “Oh…”

FB: “Perhaps we could include a response form and reply envelope, to make it easier for the people who’d like to give to do that. Then it will generate more income and we can justify the expenditure.”

F: “Well… er… I suppose so…”

FB: “And if we turned the covering letter into an appeal-style letter, with a proper ask, it would generate even more income – perhaps even as much as an appeal. Then it definitely wouldn’t be a problem.”

F: “Erm…”

I have seen and heard various versions of this conversation. Sometimes I’ve been the fundraiser, more often someone witnessing the conversation between the fundraiser and their boss (I used that term, ‘boss’, as a cover all, as they might be a fundraising manager, head of individual giving, head, or director, of fundraising, a CEO or even a board member, dependent on the size and structure of the charity). In most cases, my role has been as someone drafted in to provide advice, so the next bit goes like this:

Me: “Then it’s an appeal. Not a pure stewardship communication.”


Sometimes confused expressions.

Usually followed by a lengthy justification, constructed around the belief that a newsletter qualifies as stewardship because it’s chock full of great impact stories and including an appeal letter, response form and reply envelope doesn’t change that.

Oh, and it’s VAT exempt if it has a response form, so we may as well make it work hard as an appeal…

Me: [Screaming inside]

Sometimes I would put up a valiant defence. But, as time went on, and I’d tried and failed an increasing number of times, I’ll admit, I stopped trying as hard. Because it seemed a foregone conclusion. So what was the point in elongating the time wasted getting to it?

But then, one day, one of our clients decided that they would try it. Not only that, they were up for testing the efficacy of it with a proper, long cohort split test. To answer the question, once and for all: Does including a pure stewardship communication, without an ask, make a positive difference? God bless them.

The evidence was compelling: the cohort that received a pure stewardship communication gave more than the donors whose communication – which was otherwise identical – contained an ask. More of the donors in that test group made a donation and they also gave larger donations. The pure stewardship mailing paid for itself through the additional income to the next appeal, from the group that had received the non-ask communication. And that group continued to give more, and at a higher level, for the next few appeals. So the initial investment paid for itself several times over.

Here, at last, was the empirical evidence I’d been waiting for – the key to unlock the door to more charities being open to try this. Armed with proof that investing in looking after your donors was worthwhile – that it could be justified – who wouldn’t want to try it for themselves?

Surprisingly, it turned out to make little difference. And I’ve continued to have that same conversation at least once every year ever since. Sometimes I’ve fought hard, sometimes less so. But I’ve always shared the story of our enlightened client’s test results, in the hope that it might sway them. And always been surprised when it hasn’t.

Einstein is widely credited with saying, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results*’, but I doggedly trotted out the story again a few days’ ago in the hope that this time might be different. Because it’s one of the most conclusive, persuasive tests I’ve ever seen.

That said, I did almost fall off my chair last year when I opened an email containing a stewardship brief from a large charity who – hallelujah – wanted a series of ‘pure stewardship’** communications to send to their regular givers. At the time, I remember wondering whether this was a positive reaction to all of the bad press fundraising in the UK had been receiving and feeling mixed emotions about that; on one hand, pleased to see someone doing something decisive and sensible to look after their donors, on the other, a little sad it took things to get so bad before people started valuing donors’ feelings and not just their financial contributions. But, more than anything else, I hoped that it would be the first of many such briefs and changes, and the start of a sea change in the way charities engage with their supporters.

If you haven’t already, get started now – there’s no time to waste and plenty to be gained.


*Apparently, there’s no evidence of Einstein actually having said this (if you discount a considerable volume of posts on Pinterest), but it’s still on the money.

**I hope you’re going to let me get away, for the sake of this post, with calling one communication, without an ask, ‘a piece of pure stewardship’, even though the definition of stewardship is far broader, and practicing it well is far more holistic, than that. I’m not interested in having a debate about what stewardship is and isn’t, whether it includes asks or not, because quibbling over semantics gets boring quickly and we’ve all got real work to do. (I think the fact that I just wrote that means I may be a curmudgeon after all.)

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