How to Enhance Donor Stewardship with Prospect Research

What are the best strategies to engage current donors?  You’ve heard it said before: “Not all donors are created equal.”  But what does that actually mean?

First, your donors are not “made” or “created” by you or your team.  Donors and prospective donors are hardworking, compassionate individuals who care deeply about leaving the world (see: nation, state, city, community, neighborhood, a single family or individual, etc.) in a better place than how they found it.

Whether Jane Smith was previously known to your organization or not, at some point she performed her own due diligence on your team to determine if her wealth was truly going to the right place.  In the end, she made the conscious decision to contribute part of her wealth to furthering your mission — a mission she deeply cares about.  “Creating” a donor really means appealing to her interests and passions.  It means aligning Jane’s goals with your mission.

“Created equal” brings up another possible bone of contention.  Do you believe a $100,000 donor deserves better or more exclusive treatment than a $1,000 donor?  How about that $100,000 donor versus a $1 million donor (and wouldn’t it be nice to have that problem)?  The more we consider these questions, the more interesting and nuanced the answers become.

Ultimately, the answers are up to you and your organization.  Have you ever sat down with your team to discuss how you will address the complexities of donor stewardship?  Do all donors receive the same “thank you” card, or do you go the extra mile for individuals who demonstrated a true commitment to your cause?  Do your “smaller” donors receive a thank-you at all?

The thing is, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Identifying, cultivating, and soliciting a prospective donor might seem like the toughest part of the job.  But stewardship — the ongoing, sometimes lifelong process of nurturing your organization’s relationship with that donor — that can be tough to navigate.  But that’s where a little thing called prospect research can help.

Related: Get our Crafting the Perfect Donor Thank You Letter Cheat Sheet 

Integrate Your Data for Personalized Donor Experience

You’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into securing a new donor.  To encourage regular giving, you will need to return to the start of the fundraising cycle: research.  What has your donor been up to since your last meeting?

One key to effective stewardship is keeping your donor data organized, recent, and relevant.  You aren’t helping yourself if your donor profiles live in iWave but you store the rest of your information in your donor database.  Whether you use iWave profiles straight out of the box or customize your own profiles with pieces of information from various sources, always upload the most recent profile to your database.  This will help you keep track of your growing list of donors and segment this list.  With a segmented list of different donor “types”, you can steward each donor strategically.

Understand Changing Circumstances

It’s no secret that people change, sometimes dramatically, over a lifetime.  Even if a person doesn’t change all that much, the world around them certainly will.  As any new donor enters your stewardship program, plan to circle back and identify changes to their personal circumstances.  These might include:

  • Age
  • City / State / Zip
  • Marital Status
  • Additional Family and Network Growth
  • Occupation
  • Political Party or Affiliation

Any one of these (or other) factors might positively or negatively impact a donor’s propensity, affinity, or capacity to give.  If your development team has even a small idea of a donor’s changing circumstances, you can be more strategic about when and how to reach out to the donor at a given time.

But if you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of donors, you need some help.  Try setting an alert on an iWave profile or types of data to receive notifications whenever there is a big event in your donor’s life, such as wealth creation/dispersal, a big charitable gift, job change, etc.

Engage Your Donors Today (Not Tomorrow)

In a recent Apra webinar, Bailey Benzlé suggested consistency, reaction time, and acknowledgement are the bare minimum requirements of effective donor engagement.  Your organization’s messaging needs to be relevant to each donor’s commitment or connection, be they a major gift donor, volunteer, event attendee, etc.

Before stewardship can truly begin, remember that a donor isn’t giving to your organization; they are giving to your cause.  After the donation is collected, it’s up to your organization to demonstrate to each donor the relevant impact of each dollar donated.

But it’s not enough to simply mail out a few thank-you cards.  Benzlé gave two examples of donor outreach:

  • Outreach 1: Impersonal, generic, with inaccurate information and uninformed gift asks
  • Outreach 2: Personalized, defined the impact of the donor’s specific donation, outlined the next challenge facing the organization, and included an engaging call to action with a specific, informed ask amount.

Dollars and cents aside, which form of outreach would you rather receive?  Outreach 1 does little to convince a donor their time/money was worth anything to the organization.  Outreach 2 clearly demonstrates the donor’s contribution was welcomed and put to good use right away.  It also invites the donor to join in helping solve future challenges.

Outreach 1 might lose your organization several donors from all points on the major gift spectrum.  Outreach 2 might actually generate net new donors through positive word of mouth, or encourage a $1,000 donor to give $2,000 next year.  It might even convince your $100,000 donor to give an even greater amount, or to join your board of directors if you value their skills and experience.

Why Bother?

Benzlé quoted that 37% of donors are annoyed if an organization does not thank them for their charitable contribution.  If you think that number seems small, think again.  Identifying, cultivating, and soliciting new donors is a heavy investment (of current donor dollars) that requires a return.  If you are growing donations by 20% year over year, great!  But if nearly one of every two new donors lapses next year because they no longer believe in your organization, you have a problem.

Every donor, no matter the dollar amount of their contribution, deserves recognition for helping further your mission.  The only way to nurture lifelong relationships with donors is through dedicated, personalized stewardship practices.  It starts with seeking first to understand, then to be understood.  Listen to your donors and their goals.  What are their hopes in furthering your organization’s cause?  How can you best align those goals with your nonprofit’s mission?  What is the best way to communicate with each individual donor?  These are tough questions to answer, but the rewards are obvious: only with ongoing assistance from passionate donors can your organization expand your mission and make a true difference.


About the author: Ryan McCarvill joined the iWave team in 2016. Ryan enjoys meeting and learning from nonprofit professionals, researching trends in the nonprofit community, and offering strategies for development teams to use iWave’s solutions to meet and exceed their fundraising goals.

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