Cultivation & Stewardship

Donor Stewardship: The Essential Guide

Donor stewardship a set of communications that keep the supporter engaged and, ultimately, work to encourage their next gift. Here's what you need to know.

Donor stewardship: if you’re a nonprofit, you’ve likely heard the term time and time again. But what is it exactly and how do you get started with it?

While donor cultivation identifies new donors for your organization and builds relationships with them to encourage their first gifts, donor stewardship is what keeps them around for the long haul. You’ll want to have a plan in place once a donor gives that walks them through a variety of touchpoints to keep them engaged with your work.

If you’re new to creating a donor stewardship plan or looking to revamp your existing one, this is the guide for you. We’ll cover:

  • What is donor stewardship?
  • Why does donor stewardship matter?
  • 4 steps to build your donor stewardship plan


Download: Donor Cultivation & Stewardship Plan Template

What Is Donor Stewardship?

In short, donor stewardship is what happens after a supporter makes a donation to your nonprofit. It’s a set of donor communications that keep the supporter engaged and, ultimately, work to encourage their next gift.

Donor stewardship includes actions such as:

  • Sending thank-you letters and tax receipts after a supporter makes a donation
  • Ensuring a donor’s gift is used as intended
  • Providing donors updates on progress you’ve made toward your mission using their gift
  • Continuing to engage donors with your nonprofit through event invitations, social media connections, volunteer opportunities, and more

Why Does Donor Stewardship Matter?

Donor stewardship is ultimately what feeds the dreams of your nonprofit. The work you do toward your mission relies on strong donor connections. With good donor stewardship practices in place, you can gain greater financial stability and focus more of your energy on programming and direct services rather than constantly chasing down new funding.

Some of the various reasons why donor stewardship matters include:

  • Reduced overhead expenses: On average, it costs two to three times more to recruit a new donor than the amount of their first donation. Through donor stewardship you can increase your donor retention rates, thereby lowering your development department’s overall costs.
  • Strong brand identity: Effective donor stewardship leads to enthusiastic supporters of your organization who are likely to share their experiences with your nonprofit with others. This builds your nonprofit’s brand as one that donors can trust.
  • Expanded networks: Enthusiastic supporters of your nonprofit are also likely to recommend you to their friends, workplaces, or other community connections. A good donor stewardship plan leads to a greater network of potential donors.
  • Opportunities for growth: Donor stewardship involves ongoing engagement with donors. Through this relationship-building, you can turn one-time donors into recurring or major donors.

4 Steps to Build Your Donor Stewardship Plan

If you’re ready to formalize your donor stewardship program, there are four key steps to follow.

1. Create your donor stewardship team.

First off, you’ll want to know who on your staff is responsible for implementing and tracking the progress of your donor stewardship plan. Outlining clear roles ensures critical donor stewardship actions don’t fall through the cracks.

If your nonprofit is large with a dedicated development team, your donor stewardship team may primarily consist of your chief development officer, gift officers, and marketing staff. If you’re a smaller nonprofit where staff are wearing multiple hats, you may want to engage your board members in the task.

It can also be effective, regardless of your nonprofit’s size, to include representatives from all areas of your nonprofit, as each brings an important perspective to various donor stewardship activities. Here are a few examples:

  • Direct services staff may send a letter to a donor with an update on the nonprofit’s programming. If you’re a food bank, for instance, these staff members may be better equipped to capture the stories of your beneficiaries in personal, impactful ways than staff without direct contact with beneficiaries.
  • Marketing team members can ensure your branding is easy for donors to identify across platforms and select imagery that conveys the emotion of your mission.
  • Information Technology (IT) staff can collect donor feedback on how your online giving forms are working and make adjustments to improve their experiences.

2. Segment your donors into stewardship cohorts.

You want your donor stewardship activities to feel personalized for each donor. Sending out blanket letters that are the same for everyone, regardless of their interests or giving capacities, doesn’t convey an individualized approach.

However, personalizing each donor communication probably sounds pretty burdensome. This is why you’ll want to segment your donors into stewardship cohorts. By grouping them based on their giving levels, areas of interest, or other demographics, you can create outreach that is personalized to each group. This segmentation lowers the workload for you while enhancing the communication experience for the donors.

3. Design a communication and engagement timeline.

Once you have your donors segmented by different cohorts, you’ll want to come up with a list of touchpoints throughout the year that will aim to engage them more in your work. These could include actions like:

  • Thank-you letters and tax receipts following donations
  • Event invitations to your gala, fun run, or other experiences
  • Notifications about volunteer opportunities
  • Handwritten cards for special events like birthdays or anniversaries
  • Surveys about the donor experience or which of your nonprofit’s programs donors are most passionate about
  • Annual or quarterly reports documenting your progress

Think about which activities are critical to maintaining donor relationships, such as timely thank-you notes and tax receipts, as well as those that will best share the essence of your nonprofit. 

You may also want to increase some of the engagement perks for major donor cohorts. For example, while your team can’t likely meet one-on-one with every donor, it may make sense to have a yearly lunch with one of your major donors.

Once you have the list of activities for donor stewardship, map them to a timeline. This will help hold your team accountable to strong donor stewardship practices and make sure key communications are not forgotten.

Your timeline might look something like this:

Donor Stewardship Action


Major donors

First-time donors

Recurring donors

Thank-you letter, email, or call

Within 24 hours




Welcome letter from executive director

Within first week after donation




Invitation to annual gala

Annually in June




Annual luncheon with board members

Annually based on major donor’s schedule



Impact report, including update on gift use

Annually at mid-year




Holiday card

Annually in early December




Volunteer opportunity





End-of-year tax receipt summary

Annually in January




Want more concrete donor stewardship examples and frameworks? Download our Donor Stewardship Plan Template!

4. Evaluate your progress and make adjustments.

Especially if you’re just getting started with a donor stewardship plan or revamping your current one, you’ll want to check in with your team regularly to gauge its progress. Plan to have your team meet at least quarterly to review it and make adjustments to any points of friction in your donor stewardship program.

You’ll want to review data such as:

  • Donor retention rates
  • Donor growth rate
  • Donor satisfaction levels
  • Donor participation in events and volunteer opportunities

You can collect a lot of this information from your donor management software, but it’s also a good idea to send out annual surveys to donors to gather their direct feedback too.

Create a Donor Stewardship Plan for Donor Relationships That Last

Donor stewardship is one of the most important investments you can make in your nonprofit. By nurturing a strong donor base, you create greater financial stability for your nonprofit, connect your mission to a wider network of people, and establish meaningful donor relationships that last. Ready to get started? Download our Donor Stewardship Plan Template today!


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