by Bob Serow, Principal, RLS Consulting
In the best of worlds, the joining of a donor with an institution through philanthropy is
like an idyllic marriage where the relationship between parties endures beyond the initial
“romance” of the gift. In the norm, unfortunately, no such Eden exists and, after short-term euphoria and a perfunctory thank you, the institution moves onward to other pastures.
This represents a lost opportunity for the institution to steward a relationship that is ripe
for the offing. Make no mistake about it: to assume that a simple acknowledgement letter and/or phone call encompasses the essence of stewardship is an egregious error. On the contrary, exercising effective stewardship needs to be a process, one where the institution invests its intellectual and strategic capital on time and energy to bring a person who has displayed a commitment to mission, an alignment with vision, and a strong measure of generosity, into its proverbial family circle.
I would like to share a successful model developed by a small research institute for its
$15 million campaign. You might think a research institute would have a difficult time engaging
donors. But here’s what they do:
When donors make a commitment to support the institute, they are given the choice of 2-
3 projects where their gift would be restricted. When this decision is made, donors immediately receive two acknowledgements, one from the CEO of the organization and one from the researcher who serves as program director. The letter from the CEO is of prime importance as it advises the donor that, for the funding year, the research program will be named in his or her honor.
Six months into the funding year, the program director forwards the donor two progress
reports, one a highly technical document geared for persons in the scientific community, the other an easy to read summary, written in lay language.
The next step is a crucial one. It occurs nine months into the funding year, where the
program director and the donor meet face to face. The meeting locale may range from a simple
sandwich lunch in the program director’s office, to lunch/dinner at a fashionable midtown
restaurant. Choice of venue is up to the program director and donor.
The face to face brings stewardship of the donor to a far more engaged level as it (1)
provides the donor and program director a chance to get to know one another on a personal basis; (2) affords the program director the opportunity to share with the donor first-hand the progress of the research project; (3) sets the stage for the next ask of the donor for continuing support and, (4) strengthens the relationship between the donor and the sponsoring organization.
Two weeks after the meeting, the program director sends the donor a letter of
appreciation and brief summary of the items discussed. This sets the stage for the next ask. Shortly thereafter, the Development Office meets with the donor to solicit his or her support of the project for an additional year.
The choice of program to support, the letters, the naming opportunity, and the face-to-
face meeting all engage the donor with both the program director and the organization throughout the year of the gift. With this level of ongoing stewardship, the probability of the donor’s continuing support of the project is likely. In fact, in all instances for the duration of the institute’s campaign, the model resulted in donors continuing to support the chosen research and most often at increased levels.
Clearly, the model affirms an important axiom of organizational relationship building,
that with proper and effective stewardship, the donor’s first gift should be neither the last nor the largest investment in your institution.