March 4, 2021


March is here. Spring. Bunnies. Tulips.  Yet for many nonprofits and their development offices there is also confusion – how do you budget for contributed revenue when there isn’t a blueprint for where we find ourselves?

Let’s talk about this – and I promise not to use any of those words – you know, the ones that made the list of “2020 words to never use again,” yet, like a spinning tilt-a-whirl that makes us nauseous, we keep going back.  I’m also not going to debate the difference between budgets and forecasts (though that’s an important topic for another day).

We know what 2020 was – shocking. Crazy shocking.  If we were lucky, we came through with our jobs and families intact, or we used the disruption to make life changes. We all struggled.

The nonprofit sector struggled too. Some were plunged into darkness: museums, arts centers, theaters, and symphonies were left scrambling to switch to virtual programming, to keep staff and prepare for reopening, whenever that may come. Social service agencies were set on fire as the need for services skyrocketed. They struggled to meet the need and to keep their staff from burning out. Healthcare agencies fighting the virus, saw all other business lines tank as the pandemic became their entire focus and they fought to keep us alive.

Last March, as everyone was sent home to work, zoom meetings and conference calls for fundraising departments centered on one question – should they be asking for money. Everyone is anxious. Is now the right time?

I heard of organizations who ditched their plans for direct mail appeals, and others who increased their mailings. Front-line fundraisers picked up the phone and checked on their closest donors. They had substantial conversations as donors showed they cared deeply about how the organizations would come through this crisis. Then their donors started to give. They increased their normal gifts and gave more of them, and some organizations recorded new donors without cold calls or acquisition mailings – donors came from nowhere.

So now what – are you staring at a blank grid that says “2021 Budget: Contributed Revenue”? Or worse, did your boss or board chair plop a number in that shows 10% growth over 2020 – a year in which you don’t know how you surpassed your revenue goal? “I’m afraid they won’t give again or go back to their smaller gifts.” “How do we budget for this…?”

To that I say: Donor Stewardship. Moreover, I declare 2021 The Year of Donor Stewardship. Unsure how to plan – talk to your donors. Thank them and listen. Ask why it was important for them to increase their giving or to give a first gift. Take notes. Pay attention to the small details – those are usually the keys to what your donor really cares about.

Then share impact: their impact. And leave them knowing their 2021 gift will be just – if not more – important. By the end of the conversation or the next 10 or 20 conversations, you will know what your donors are thinking about their 2021 giving. It will also help you to plan beyond 2021.

Truthfully, your substantial conversations from last year – when you were checking in to make sure that your donors were okay – the calls that resulted in larger gifts and more of them, prove the importance of stewardship. Don’t they?

This isn’t revolutionary or a sexy new idea. It’s a reminder to come back to best practices, which is your foundation when the world wobbles, as it’s doing now.

Making 2021 the year of Donor Stewardship is a reminder that even though you’re busy and don’t have enough staff and board members won’t help (that’s a post for another day) and you need to get gifts in the door now: it starts with stewardship.  Because you know you’re more likely to get a second gift than to find a new donor, and that donors continue to give when you keep in touch and share the impact.

If you’re looking for the sexy new ideas - well, within this stalwart best practice of excellent donor stewardship, 2020 did bring a world of innovation. Donuts delivered for Zoom breakfast meetings, socially distanced picnics with the CEO, etc. Last year proved that you have imagination, and you are resourceful, and most importantly, you don’t give up. You fight for your missions and those you serve. Fight for your donors too (hmmm, let’s say prioritize. I don’t want you out there coming to fisticuffs over donors).  

Happy 2021: The Year of Donor Stewardship.