Over the last couple of years we have been fortunate to interview many major donors as part of our work with a wide range of charities. One area we are always keen to hear about is the donor’s perspective of stewardship. We really want to help charities understand how major donors really want to be communicated with, what events are really of interest and who do they want to talk to and meet.

When collating feedback from interviews with around 100 major donors we identified three common themes that major donors were looking for:

1. Information
2. Engagement
3. Networking

Donors we spoke to placed different emphasis on each of these and several were only interested in one or two. It became clear, however, that the larger the gift, the more likely that all three elements would need to be provided, or at least offered, to the donor.

So, what does this look like in reality and how can you provide these elements?

The common approach to providing information to donors is to send updates on the charity’s work in the form of written reports, annual impact reports, case studies and newsletters, on a regular basis. Attempts are made to personalise these with a handwritten note or a tailored cover letter.

In our experience, donors do not see this as personalised communication; instead these items are perceived as a rather a lazy attempt to tick the ‘additional stewardship’ box. Another common pitfall is to communicate broadly about what the charity has achieved rather than what the charity has specifically achieved with the donors’ donation.

Often, the charity does not even refer to the gift or project area, preferring instead to talk about the great work the charity is planning to do next, with the expectation that this will elicit further funds from the donor.

Donors tell us that information needs to be relevant to their gift before promoting further good work. It also doesn’t need to be formal, traditional written communication – most donors we spoke to only glanced at newsletters and impact reports. Increasingly, donors wish for short, sharp, interesting update in the form of a video blog, short email, good news story, snippet from the frontline. This form of information also allows for two-way communication, giving you the opportunity to build a more informal relationship with the donor and to learn more about their passions and hopes.

One of the key triggers that turns a supporter into a major donor is becoming more intellectually engaged with a cause. Many successful businesspeople ad philanthropists are happy to have a call or meeting with a charity CEO to better understand the challenges that the organisation faces. Charities are often reticent, however, to be transparent about not having all the answers, preferring instead to present their project ideas as a fait accompli, to demonstrate that they are the experts and that the donor should be in awe of their brilliance.

This approach does not involve the donor, it does not tap into their intellectual curiosity or interests in the causes behind the issues that charity is attempting to address. It also presents the idea that all is well on all fronts, which doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a need for funds.

Donors we spoke to love to talk about issues they are passionate about. Remember, charities are just the conduit to a donor’s wishes, not the end of the line. We recommend inviting key donors in to discuss the challenges the charity faces, on a project level, organisation level and funding level. Donors understand that all is not perfect and that you require funds to keep afloat so don’t hide from the fact.

Focus groups, email surveys, phone calls about these challenges further engage your donors. It gives them the chance to share their beliefs and ideas in two-way communication. You should have some potential solutions to your organisational challenges to show strategic thinking, but there is nothing like getting feedback. Wealthy donors like nothing more than being asked their advice – it’s even better than giving!

Fundraising should be fun and interesting; the more enjoyable the experience, the more likely it is to continue. Make sure you design a range of networking opportunities for your donors that gives them the chance to meet fellow donors and interesting people. This need not be large events, black tie dinners, etc – many donors are very tired of these and are fully aware that profit from such events is often very marginal.

Go for private dinners, business breakfasts, 6pm drinks, city lunches, lectures, talks, etc, which donors do not need to make a significant commitment to attend. Formal appeal or development boards work for some, but not everyone, so you need a range of less structured alternatives.

Planning your stewardship
One way to plan your major donor stewardship is to split it out into three columns; remote communication, group communication and individual communication. This ensures that you have a one to many, one to some and one to one approach. Get a group of staff together and come up with everything you think you could offer a donor under those three headings, agree what you plan to do over the next 18 months and then diarise it. You can then decide which donors get what level of stewardship.

Ensure that you review your stewardship plans annually based on donor feedback, not on internal calendars of events. True stewardship is a partnership not customer service.

Give your major donor programme a health check now