One Fundraiser’s Stewardship Is Another Donor’s Junk

by Adam L. Clevenger, CFRE on August 23, 2017

A donor’s office can tell you a lot about them. Recently, I interviewed a potential donor as part of a feasibility study. At the end of the interview, I noticed a logoed item in the corner of his office. I drew his attention to it, and he commented, “Oh, that’s the pile of junk I get from nonprofit organizations.” Apparently internally chastising himself for the flippant comment, he quickly apologized and clarified that he meant to say they were gifts he had received from various nonprofits.


I asked what all was included. There were logoed beach towels (which had initially caught my attention), Christmas tree ornaments, framed sketches, pad folios, t-shirts, etc. The junk pile was tall and wide.


There’s no doubt that stewardship is the most overlooked part of fundraising. According to Penelope Burk, donors repeatedly cite the lack of proper gift acknowledgement and communication as the key reasons for not making additional gifts.


But a distinction should be made. Junk and giveaways are not good stewardship. The donor told me that the items devalue his gift; he had made the gifts with the intention of the money serving people, not buying him gifts.


I asked what would have been more meaningful. He thought for a while and responded that a genuine and thoughtful thank you note would have meant more than the entire heap of gifts.


What could these organizations have done differently?


Sincerity and appreciation live long in the memory of your donors. Each donor experiences what Economist James Andreoni called “warm glow” when they make a gift. Good stewardship taps into the warm glow effect, reminding donors of the feeling they felt doing good. Other than keeping them literally warm, a beach towel falls short of the warm glow effect.


Thank you letters and calls are effective, likely more effective than any donor gift. Penelope Burk has found that 45% of donors who received an “exceptional letter” gave again BECAUSE of the letter. Additionally, Roger Carver has found that a three-minute thank you call will boost first-year retention by 30%. Donors not only pay attention to how they are treated, but make future giving decisions based on their stewardship experience. Plus, it saves you money, increasing net profits!


Some keys for staying out of the junk heap:


  1. Make your initial thank you letters and any follow-up communication as personal and focused on the impact of the donor’s gift as possible.
  2. Have board members send hand-written, self-addressed, stamped thank you notes.
  3. Encourage staff and board members writing notes or making calls to sound as human as possible; don’t use jargon and brand language.
  4. Ensure your donors know if you are a donor or volunteer yourself.
  5. Offer ways to become more deeply connected to your organization.
  6. Consider involving program staff, students, clients, and others in the process.
  7. Why stop with a call or note? Invite the donor to experience your organization’s work and receive an in-person thank you from someone that benefitted from the gift.


As donors become ever more sophisticated, they continue to pay attention to the perceived cost of fundraising. Gifts, even small ones, distract donors from the good their gifts are doing. Given the transaction-focused, technology-driven, hyper-impersonal approaches surrounding us every day, donors might find it refreshing to receive a personal, authentic, low-tech, super appreciative Thank You.

Adam Clevenger
a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), has spent his entire career building donor passion for causes. For over a decade, Adam has created donor-centered and sustainable fundraising programs. Adam is a Senior Associate with Loring Sternberg and Associates (LSA), an Indianapolis-based nonprofit management and fundraising consulting. Prior to joining LSA, he served as Regional Collaboration Manager for the YMCA of the USA, working closely with 300 local Ys to support their development efforts; Director of Annual Giving for the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis providing leadership to the annual campaign for 13 branches that raised more than $2 million each year. Additionally, he is a YMCA Faculty Trainer for the Annual Campaign and Introduction to Fundraising courses, a frequent contributor to Bloomerang and the North American YMCA Development Organization (NAYDO) blogs, and conference presenter.  As a volunteer, Adam serves as a board member and VP of Finance-elect for Indiana Chapter of Association for Fundraising Professionals (AFP), both the Advisory Council and Development Committee for Second Helpings in Indianapolis, Stewardship Committee for Second Presbyterian Church, a board member for Indiana YMCA Youth and Government and Hanover College Business Scholars Program Leadership Council. Adam and his wife, Jess, enjoy traveling, gardening and spending time with their two daughters and two energetic dogs. Follow him on Twitter, @adamclevenger.