Personal Donor Relations and Stewardship: An Essential Practice for High End Major Gifts

December 31, 2014 by
Tom Landrum

A great deal of effort is often expended in securing a major gift. The early identification of a prospect, careful research into interests and capacity, and systematic cultivation efforts that precede the ask may involve a process of many months, even years.

When a high-end, major gift is made, it should be a “no-brainer” to follow-up with a carefully crafted plan of stewardship and donor relations. Such a plan should consist of more than thoughtful thank you letters and annual reports on the status of the established fund, although these actions are essential. Rather, an individual who makes a significant gift to establish an endowed professorship, a scholarship or support fund, or to underwrite a bricks and mortar project requires personal and on-going contact with the development officer. This will allow the donor to hear first-hand of the continuing impact that his or her gift is having, and will also give the development officer an opportunity to elicit questions and secure feedback and comments from the donor.

It is possible for this to be accomplished by means of personal and well-written letters from the development officer or the senior officer of the benefitting department or institution. However, a far better approach is personal contact by means of a phone conversation; the best approach is a personal visit. A systematic “check in” with a donor about the status and impact of his or her generous major gift is the best way to prevent misunderstandings about donor expectations for use of the gift, while at the same time, to accomplish an on-going cultivation activity that may lead to additional major gifts in the future.

I know of several instances where a donor, when asked for a new gift, has reacted with understandable unhappiness that he or she has no idea of what has become of the earlier gift. As fundraisers, we are privy to the most current information about the work being done by the professor whose position was endowed by a donor, or the extraordinary impact that a scholarship is having on the life of a young man or woman. We sometimes forget that the donor “just doesn’t live in our world,” and is not constantly exposed to the on-going benefits of private support. It is the development officer’s responsibility to communicate to the donor the nuances of the gift’s impact. If the donor only hears in cursory and sporadic ways how his gift is being used, or worse, if the donor hears nothing at all, the fundraiser may face an insurmountable obstacle to securing a new gift. At the very least, such a misstep will create a situation where considerable time and effort will need to be expended to repair the bruised relationship.

It is time-consuming to practice effective one-on-one donor relations and stewardship with major donors, but for high-end gifts, a failure to do so may guarantee that the last gift from that individual will be truly “the last gift.”


Tom Landrum

Tom S. Landrum has more than 40 years experience in institutional advancement, including work in communications, fund raising and alumni relations. He has been involved in four comprehensive capital campaigns, and led a fund raising team at the University of Georgia that set records by raising more than $100 million a year. Tom serves as a senior consultant for the Lighthouse Counsel team.