Stewardship is often discussed as it relates to university advancement and is more rarely discussed in terms of arts and cultural organizations.

Although arts and cultural institutions typically have less resources to devote to donor relations and stewardship, many of the nonprofit sector’s best stewardship practices can easily be translated for use by smaller organizations or those with limited capital.

When a donor makes a gift, based on communications with the organization and his or her own understanding of the donation process, he or she has certain expectations of the organization upon receipt of the gift. At minimum, the donor expects to receive a receipt, some form acknowledgement and increased communications from the organization. If the organization fails to clearly articulate the expectations a donor should have regarding the post gift-giving process, the organization will likely not meet the donor’s expectations and therefore, lose the loyalty and financial support of that donor.

Stewardship therefore involves meeting donors’ expectations, but beyond this, it builds a stronger relationship between the donor and the organization and helps cultivate future gifts.

In order for stewardship to inspire loyalty, there must be a formal process in place, management by senior staff, and cross departmental buy-in. Stewardship looks different for every organization, but the process should be based on the organization’s culture, the needs of its donors and the capacity of its staff.

Developing the Stewardship Process

The organization must develop a set of criteria detailing which individuals will receive stewardship efforts and then develop customized plans for those individuals. Senior staff should be involved in managing stewardship efforts by developing a system for employees to keep accurate records of their contacts with donors, ensure quick response to donations and correspondence, and evaluate the personalization of stewardship plans. They should also conduct regular meetings with staff members on the success of these efforts and encourage an open dialogue around issues that may arise. Finally, staff should also review its stewardship process and survey donors to evaluate the impact of stewardship efforts. Surveys are a great tool to gather feedback from relevant stakeholders and make adjustments to an organization’s process. Once an organization has refined its process, other stewardship practices should be integrated throughout the organization.

Cross department buy-in is important because in order to develop messaging and other creative ways to thank a donor, an organization will need the support and expertise of those in its development, education, finance and other departments. Staff will rely on these departments to help develop the qualitative and quantitative reporting that is necessary to really wow a donor.

Beyond the Gift

Donors appreciate several types of stewardship, including acknowledgement letters, impact reports, society membership, and events. What’s important is that the donor wants to see how his or her gift is making a difference or furthering the mission of the institution. Donors want to hear from those who have directly benefited from their gifts and receive communication materials customized for their personal interests. Stewardship must go beyond reporting on one specific gift. Instead, the organization should learn about the donor’s many interests and report on those areas as well. This not only makes communications more engaging, but opens up the conversation about other areas for giving.

Every contact with a donor should be considered an opportunity to steward.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Woldt is an MBA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration with interests in marketing and business development. Upon graduation, she hopes to secure a position at an institution committed to diversity, access and education.

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