Why donor relations really matters

Amanda Stanes, OStJ, CFRE,
Director of Advancement,
Auckland Grammar School

When I took up my first real fundraising role I was handed two arch-lever files by my manager and told “here are the names of donors who gave to our last project, they’ll give again, I’m sure.” I was so excited and began contacting these people immediately only to find they hadn’t been spoken to since they last gave – some 10 years prior. You can imagine how successful those telephone calls were.

This was my first experience of ‘donor relations’ or ‘stewardship’ and the importance of building a long-lasting relationship that is respectful of and to the donor’s wishes. It’s not ‘all about the money’ it is actually about an exchange of value(s), a matching of beliefs and a mutual understanding of what is to be achieved jointly. There is so much competition out there in the philanthropic market that the donor is besieged with requests and it is the relationships with an organisation and its people which makes the difference between what they do and don’t donate to.

At my previous role with the University of Auckland Business School, my title was Associate Director Donor Stewardship and I was responsible for managing the philanthropic and corporate relationships of some 80 donors and partners. The position was established following a very thorough study of international best practice by the then Dean of Business, Professor Barry Spicer. Professor Spicer not only reviewed the literature but went and visited the leading universities in the United States of America and through his discussions realised that investing in stewardship and donor relations personnel would reap rewards for the School.

“What makes a donors mind up about where to give is based on the relationship that donor has with the institution and the people who they interact with,” says Professor Spicer. “They ask themselves ‘how have I been treated?’, ‘how have I been recognised?’, ‘Do I feel my gift is making a difference?’ Everything we did through that role was to ensure our donors felt that their donation had made the difference we said it was going to make, and that they had the opportunity to engage further with either more financial support or in other ways.”

Communicating Impact

The donor is quite a savvy beast these days and they are more demanding of their charitable beneficiaries. Not only do donors want to be thanked appropriately and to feel appreciated. Donors want to be involved, they want to give feedback and they want to know what difference their donation has made.

For this reason, we created the Annual Donor Impact Report. We had previously put together a basic document with some highlights of academic results and largely it was all about us. It didn’t have the donor at the centre of our thinking or of our communications. Working with our Marketing and Communications team we filmed our staff who had benefitted from endowed chairs, we interviewed scholars who had received fellowships and scholarships. And we said quite a lot less about ourselves and more about how the donor’s gift had made things happen. We said ‘thank you’. The result was an e-book which was sent to all donors with stories and embedded video and for our top donors, we also printed off a copy (without a CD) and mailed it to them in time for Christmas so that it sat on their coffee tables for family and friends to see over the holiday period.

What works for one shop may not work for another

Stewardship or donor relations is time intensive. Staff need to get out and about meeting with donors understanding their needs. In my case, for one of our very top donors who travelled a lot we had an office set up alongside the Dean’s suite so that when they were in town they had access to an office space and meeting rooms. For other donors we ensured they had access to car parks, ensured they were invited to certain campus events and facilitated meetings with faculty across the university.

For some donors, we created specific annual lecture programmes and visiting professorial programmes that highlighted the purpose of the gift and created platforms for engagement and positioning opportunities. It also ensured the Business School was able to progress its own learning agenda to a new level.

However, with such intensive attention to the top donors, non-major donors can be overlooked so it is important to find ways to be inclusive. I created a stewardship plan for each category of donor which although not perfect did ensure that every donor had at least four ‘touches’ a year. Major gift donors were included in a ‘Supporters Council’ and were invited to a unique event each year to re-engage with each other, middle-level donors received a quarterly e-newsletter with student related stories and invitations to a number of lectures with opportunities to meet with the presenters. Annual fund donors received hand-written thank you notes, were invited to an annual thank you event and invited to regular lectures.

What we tried to do was to match a donor’s interest with the lectures being given or the academic visitors we were hosting. It means the time you’ve taken to get to know your donors is vital because you want to match their interests with your activities. You want to make them feel special.

Donor Relations is everyone’s role

But I was only one person, so it was important that everyone knew who our donors were and what they wanted. And generally what our donors wanted was access to students – or rather seeing the impact of their gifts on the students. So, working with the Student Development team we would set up small luncheons for donors to meet with students, invite donors to give presentations to students, invite donors to be judges of case competitions – we would do all we could to ensure the donor:student interface occurred and was a positive interaction for both. Because the students of today are the donors of tomorrow and we wanted them to understand and appreciate the power of philanthropy.

It is important that faculty and other staff also understood the power of stewardship and that they took part in the donor journey. With my Director of Advancement, we would brief our senior academics prior to meetings and the same with our students. We asked them to think of stories about their lives that would bring the donor’s gift to life. We also briefed the front reception staff so they knew when donors were visiting. Donor relations is more than one person, it is an institution responsibility and it is 24/7. But there is also a fine line in how far to take the relationship. In this industry we are professional friends - we don’t stalk our donors with Facebook requests, nor do we invite them to a BBQ at home.

When I started out on my fundraising journey, a colleague said to me you’ll never read a magazine or newspaper again without a notebook beside you as you look for information on, and connections to, your donors and prospective donors. Now, it’s social media as well. However, to not be informed is to not be relevant and engaging to your donor. So, my advice, don’t just get reading, get out there.

Why donor relations really matters



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