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Fundraising vs. Stewardship: Which is More Important?

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What is more important — fundraising or stewardship?

I hear this question frequently. A while ago, I asked fundraisers what their #1 challenge was, and many people identified this.

It’s not a casual or theoretical question. It’s an urgent, almost existential question: That is, should you focus your time and money more on motivating your donors to give, or should you focus on making them feel good about giving?

The easy, too-obvious, not-terribly-helpful answer is: You need to do both.

But you already know that. You know we don’t live in an “everything is equally important” world, and that if you don’t rank your priorities, you’ll rarely make progress.

But you can’t do everything all the time. So between fundraising and stewardship, which one should take priority?

Let’s dig into the assumption behind the question. Because I believe it’s a faulty assumption: That every minute you spend raising money is a minute you’re not stewarding your donors. That if you do too much of one, you are not doing enough of the other.

Here’s a better starting place that can liberate you from the either/or conundrum:

Fundraising campaigns improve donor retention.

Or to put it another way: Asking donors to give is one of the most important and effective ways to keep them as donors.

Fundraising IS stewardship.

How so? Well, the purpose of stewardship is to keep donors (retention) and to encourage them to their best level of engagement (upgrading). If you are successful at stewardship, you’ll have good donor retention and good levels of upgrading. If you aren’t doing well with those things, you are clearly not doing well at stewardship, no matter how well you mean. There are survey and qualitative research ways to gauge stewardship, but they don’t mean much if retention and upgrading aren’t happening.

How do donors retain?  They donate. That is, they respond to your fundraising.

How do donors upgrade?  They donate more than they did before — more donations and/or bigger amounts. That is, they respond to your fundraising.

When they don’t respond, they don’t retain. When they don’t respond more, they don’t upgrade.

There’s not some other magical form of retention and upgrading other than that.

There are, no doubt, donors on your file who are happy as clams with the relationship they have with you, but they stop giving anyway. When that happens, it means whatever stewardship you were practicing didn’t succeed. (It doesn’t necessarily mean you did a terrible job; it just tells you that you didn’t succeed with this particular donor. If a lot of donors stop giving, that could be a sign you did a terrible job of stewardship!)

There are also, no doubt, donors on your file who are mad as hornets with you all the time. But they keep giving. For some reason, they get enough out of giving to overcome their anger. For them, your stewardship, oddly enough, is working. Even if it may not seem like it. (And this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing a good job; it just means it’s good enough for these donors.)

But for the large majority of donors, their sense of love, connection, and relationship — all the things we’re going for in stewardship — are exactly correlated with giving.

That is, the things you do to encourage them to donate are, in fact, a kind of stewardship. And many stewardship vehicles, such as newsletters, are really good at raising money.

Don’t think of them as two different either/or activities. Most activities accomplish both.

In fact, if you think of fundraising and stewardship as opposites in some kind of zero-sum game where too much of one is not enough of the other, I can almost guarantee that you will not do a great job of one of them. Or both.

If you think fundraising is a questionable activity that annoys donors, something you only do because you have to, and you wish there were a better way — your fundraising is off to a very bad start. Your attitude is all wrong, and it’s going to show. You will raise less money. And you’ll have low retention rates.

On the other hand, if you think your job is all about asking, asking, asking, and you feel like relationship-building is a silly waste of time — your stewardship will pretty much suck.

So value both. That’s how you’ll get maximum results from happy, connected donors.

Want to discover more secrets of the fundraising trade? Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get access to amazing fundraising courses, all kinds of tools and templates, plus a supportive (and super-cool) worldwide community that will help you build your fundraising career.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Kent Hartshorn
    November 3, 2020 8:36 am

    Jeff…. love your newsletters. Truly like to hear you consistently state that to not ask a donor for a gift to impact society, is depriving that person of making a difference in our world. Don’t make that decision for the donor! Ask!
    But I wanted your thoughts, as I looked on your site and could not see, on approaches to the corporate sector. Yes, 85% of all gifts come from individuals, but we are a post secondary polytechnic and to date that statistic is the opposite…. 85% of all gifts are corporate gifts.
    We are slowly changing that …but would be curious what your thoughts might be on frequently asking a corporate donor (e.g., Mary Smith in Community Services Dept at XYZ Company) for a gift.
    Thank you!


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