What is Donor Stewardship?

Donor stewardship is the process that occurs once a donor has given to your organization. Specifically, stewardship refers to the relationship-building and communications that take place after the gift has been received.

Stewardship involves managing gifts as donors intended, updating donors on the progress and impact of their gifts, and easing donors into the cultivation process by keeping them involved with your organization.

Ultimately, stewardship is about meeting a donor’s gift intentions and expectations within the parameters of your organization to create a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.

Table of Contents

This section will walk you through understanding donor stewardship.

Donor Stewardship Key Concepts

The donor pyramid is a means of visualizing the composition of your donors and can help with donor stewardship.

The Donor Pyramid

The donor pyramid is a means of visualizing the composition of your donors. Pyramids vary depending on the size of your organization, but this image shows a possible basic structure.

As shown in the image, you will typically have more first-time donors than recurring donors, and so on. In terms of stewardship and cultivation, your goal should be to move donors up the pyramid. That way, you’re not only retaining donors but increasing their value to your organization. It’s important to note that the donor pyramid is a concept to guide stewardship rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

The cultivation cycle is the process of identifying and cultivating prospective supporters into donors and can help with donor stewardship

The Donor Cultivation Cycle

The cultivation cycle is the process of identifying and cultivating prospective supporters into donors. The cycle also refers to cultivating previous donors into recurring donors.

Once a prospect becomes a donor, the donor will ideally be stewarded to the point that they stay involved in your organization. Stewardship should aim to retain donors so that they remain within the cultivation cycle. Once a donor has been properly stewarded, they can be cultivated for their next gift. Good cultivation strategies allow you to better understand a donor’s expectations so you can engage with them more meaningfully throughout your relationship.

Donor stewardship and donor relations are often used interchangeably, but stewardship is better understood as a subset of donor relations

Donor Relations

Donor relations are an organization’s comprehensive actions to promote long-term engagement and high-value interactions with donors.

Donor stewardship and donor relations are often used interchangeably, but stewardship is better understood as a subset of donor relations. Donor relations include all of your organization’s communications and relationship-building with donors, while stewardship’s primary focus is honoring a donor’s gift intentions.

Cultivation and stewardship are similar, but stewardship centers around donors and cultivation centers around prospects.

Donor Cultivation

Donor cultivation is the process of engaging a prospect and building a relationship prior to the ask. This can also be used as a broad term, referring to the cycle.

Cultivation is a necessary aspect of donor relations that focuses on understanding how a donor’s wants can align with your organization’s needs. Cultivation and stewardship are similar, but stewardship centers around donors and cultivation centers around prospects.

Part of the donor stewardship process is retaining donors

Donor Retention

Donor retention is the process of keeping donors involved once they have given to your organization. Donor retention ultimately means that a donor gives more than once to your organization.

Part of the stewardship process is retaining donors. After all, you can’t steward donors who disappear after they’ve given. At the same time, stewarding your donors is a key strategy for retaining them long term because stewardship is about furthering your relationship.

This is the donor stewardship process.

Step 1: The Donor Gives to Your Organization

Stewardship begins when a donor makes a gift to your organization. Who the donor is and how much they give should determine your stewardship strategy. For example, a major donor who frequently gives to your organization will require different stewardship techniques than a surprise mid-level donor with no prior ties to your organization.

You can use this early stage to add new donors to your donor database or update your current donor profiles based upon the gift and its timing.

Step 2: Thank the Donor for Their Gift

Once a donor gives, the first thing you should do is thank them for their generosity. It’s important that you thank your donors before moving forward. Gratitude, after all, shows that you appreciate the donation.

This initial thank-you, like all others, should be personal and sincere, but it’s only the beginning of the gratitude that you’ll express during the stewardship process. Think of this thank-you as a starting point in a more involved process.

Always thank the donor with their preferred name and title, regardless of the size of the donation. Provide your thank-you on the same channel that the donor gave. Online donors, for example, tend to prefer email communications.

Step 3: Confirm the Donor's Intentions and Expectations

If you’ve been properly cultivating your donors, you should have an understanding of the donor’s expectations before you solicit a gift. This step, however, is a chance to confirm your donor’s intentions with their gift or find out about the motivations of a new donor that you have yet to cultivate a relationship with.

It’s important that your donor understands the level of stewardship that they’ll receive for their gift. A $100 gift, for example, would likely not warrant a personal meal with your board members, and a major gift would require more than a handwritten thank-you card.

Your nonprofit’s job is to manage your donors’ expectations within the realm of their gift size and your nonprofit’s capabilities. Further, the better you understand your donor’s intentions, the better you can manage their gift so that their funds help the cause that they most care about.

Step 4: Recognize the Donor Accordingly

Based upon the donor’s gift and their expectations, recognize the donor accordingly. Recognition can be public or private and can encompass anything from an invitation to a private dinner to an engraved plaque to a simple post on social media. It all depends on the donor and their gift.

This step requires a great understanding of who your donor is as a person. Some major donors, for example, may love to be put in the public spotlight while others would cringe at being thanked in a crowded room. Be sure to ask for permission before recognizing donors publicly.

It’s also important to understand that recognition should not be reserved for major donors alone. Smaller gestures can be effective for new, low, or mid-level donors. An opportunity to sign a banner at an event, for example, is a simple way to recognize all donors.

Step 5: Report the Gift's Impact to the Donor

Why do donors give to your nonprofit? To help the people, animals, or communities that they care about.

Reporting on the donor’s impact is vital to fulfilling your donor’s expectations. Your report should be specific, yet emotionally driven. You could, for example, send an update featuring a recipient of your aid. Include a picture of this person and explain how the donor’s gift directly resulted in positive change for this person.

Reports should also be governed by the gift. It would be appropriate to call a major donor to update them personally on how their donation built a new home for a family in need (you could even take them to the worksite!).

Your new and smaller-gift donors deserve to see the impact of their gifts just as much. However, in these cases, you can send emails or post a mass update on social media.

Step 6: Begin the Cultivation Process

Once you’ve properly stewarded a donor, they should feel appreciated and understand how vital their contributions are to helping people in need.

Now, you need to begin cultivating them for their next gift. A strong stewardship process should help you retain your donors and grow their giving levels.

Remember: The stewardship process can take many months. Cultivation should only begin once a donor has been thoroughly, properly thanked, recognized, and updated.

This will walk you through the donor pyramid and how that can help with stewardship.
This is the donor pyramid and lifecycle you need to know when stewarding donors.

What is the purpose of the donor pyramid?

The donor pyramid should help you understand the disbursement of your donors based upon their value to your organization.

In general, you can use the pyramid to target segments of your supporters with certain stewardship techniques. These techniques should be designed to move the donors up the pyramid, thus increasing their value.

The pyramid is a tool for analyzing your donors in very general groups. It’s important that you further segment donors within the pyramid to create the most personalized stewardship techniques.

What kind of pyramid should you create?

Your pyramid will depend on your nonprofit’s donor data. Most donor bases will not split into a perfect pyramid shape.

You will need to determine how you’d like to define your broad donor categories. For example, you’ll need to determine which gift amounts constitute a mid-level donor. Then you can further segment your mid-level donors in different increments, such as the frequency of their gifts. These broad categories will determine the visual layout of your donors.

Ultimately, the “pyramid” is a concept more than a shape. Your pyramid should change as you focus on transitioning your donors upward.

How can you use the donor pyramid?

Your donor pyramid is a model that you can use to better understand how and when your donors transition to higher giving levels. It shows where your organization is so that you can craft a targeted strategy to improve your stewardship.

You can, for example, pair your pyramid with a timeline that demonstrates how long it took your donors, on average, to reach their current levels. It may take 5 years on average for small donors to transition to mid-level donors, for instance.

Then, you can use that information to craft a targeted stewardship strategy. Assess your past stewardship efforts and use that information to set new stewardship goals (such as a transition timeframe of 3 years).

This example shows how you can use the donor pyramid to assess your nonprofit’s current standing and set reasonable, data-driven stewardship goals.

What kind of donor groups should you target?

Your strategy will depend on your organization, but these donor groups can be a strong place to start:

Transitional Donors: These donors are usually loyal mid-level donors with greater giving potential. They are transitional because they slowly increase their gift size or have given consistently. You can try to speed up the process by paying these donors special attention.

New Donors: All donors are valuable to your organization. Stewarding new donors is vital for retaining them. The more specific you can be in your new donor stewardship strategy, the better. For example, even a $20 online gift warrants an email acknowledgment with opportunities for further engagement or upcoming events.

Major Donors: Major donors are already at the top of the pyramid, but you’ll still need to steward them to maintain and increase their current giving. Most stewardship efforts are concentrated on these donors; however, it’s important that your organization recognizes the value of high-level stewardship to other donor groups as well.

Let's review some donor stewardship techniques.
When stewarding a donor, make sure you process gifts quickly.

Process Gifts Quickly

What is the technique? 
Once your organization receives a gift, you should immediately confirm that the donation has been received and work on implementing the gift in a timely manner.

How does it work? 
Send donation receipts ASAP so that donors know their gift has been received. Most online giving software can automate this process. The more personal your receipts are, the better your donors will be able to understand the impact of their gift. For example, a receipt that thanks a donor for their contribution to a specific campaign will show that your organization is putting the gift toward its intended purpose.

Tell a story when stewarding donors.

Tell a Story

What is the technique?
Telling a story involves showing how your donor’s gift has impacted the life of a specific person, community, or animal that your nonprofit supports. Make your donors the hero of the story by showing how their gift has helped.

How does it work?
Write thank-you letters that focus on the donor and the people that they want to help. Use donor-centric language, using “you” at least twice as much as “we.” Structure your letter so that you introduce the recipient(s) of your nonprofit’s aid and then explain how the donor helped them. Allow the recipients of your nonprofit’s work to speak for themselves.

Create giving societies to steward donors.

Create Giving Societies

What is the technique?
Creating exclusive memberships can incentivize donors to give more to your organization and stay involved with other donors who care about your nonprofit’s work.

How does it work?
Donors who give a certain amount or pay an annual membership fee can be invited into your giving society. The giving society should hold special perks for members, such as free parking at events or exclusive promotional items. But ultimately, your giving society should focus on a community of philanthropy.

Host donor stewardship events.

Host Stewardship Events

What is the technique?
Hosting stewardship events allows you to thank your donors in person and demonstrate what being a part of your organization can mean.

How does it work?
Invite specific groups of donors to your events (for example, you may host a major donor gala or a mid-level donor cookout). Focus on gratitude, and do not ask for more donations. Instead, demonstrate your appreciation with a special video reel or a speech from a recipient of your nonprofit’s aid. Bringing your donors together can motivate them to stay invested.

Here's how to create a donor stewardship program.

What Is a Donor Stewardship Program?

A donor stewardship program is your nonprofit’s comprehensive, systematic effort to steward donors. A strong stewardship program should lay the groundwork for thanking and acknowledging donors in a large-scale, process-oriented way.

At the same time, a donor stewardship program should prioritize personal, meaningful interactions with donors. Your stewardship efforts will involve training your gifts officers and frontline fundraisers to initiate stewardship with your top donors. Your stewardship program should be integrated across your donor relations programs.

What Are the Roles and Responsibilities in Your Stewardship Program?

The roles and responsibilities involved with donor stewardship will vary depending on the size of your organization. Some organizations, for example, will integrate stewardship efforts into other donor relations roles, while others may have a separate stewardship department that manages and reports on donor funds.

We’ve outlined some of the key roles in donor stewardship below:

Director of Donor Relations

What is their role? 

Depending on the size of your nonprofit, a director of donor relations may be fully responsible for the donor stewardship program (as well as the other donor relations programs), or they may maintain a broader role in which they oversee your program and the stewardship officer.

Why are they important? 

The director of donor relations keeps everyone focused on the primary goal: building stronger donor relationships.

Stewardship Officer

What is their role? 

A stewardship officer is a vital player in pulling together donor stewardship profiles, ensuring that donors are properly thanked, creating stewardship reports, updating stewardship processes, and maintaining a stewardship schedule.

Why are they important? 

A stewardship officer will not only maintain your program but help it to grow. This officer will work with your major gifts officers, board members, and committees to ensure that stewardship is being properly executed.

Major Gift Officers

What is their role? 

Your major gifts officers will play a key role in your stewardship efforts because they build relationships and trust with major donors. They can be in charge of your in-person or written communications with major donors, and they can help implement and execute your stewardship program.

Why are they important? 

Stewardship should stem organically from your cultivation efforts. Your major gifts officers spend a lot of time with your major donors. A solid stewardship program should integrate them into your overall plan.

Board Members

What is their role? 

Board members are the face of your organization. They can be used to recognize donors and demonstrate their appreciation for the gifts your nonprofit has received. Signing letters, or even meeting with high-level donors, can be part of your board’s responsibilities.

Why are they important? 

Donors tend to respect the position of board members, so leveraging your board members to show your nonprofit’s appreciation is a highly effective means of cultivating long-term donors.

These are some donor stewardship tools.

Online Giving Software

Strong online giving software allows you to set up donation pages on your website, receive and process donations easily, automate donation receipts, and capture donor information.

An online giving platform is useful for collecting donor information and setting their stewardship expectations.

For example, you can provide multiple giving options on your online donation forms. With each option, you can explain how those funds will be used to further your mission (ex: $50 will feed a child for a month).

That way, your donors will be able to anticipate the nature of your updates and feel satisfied that their funds were used as the donor intended.

Check out this example of a donor stewardship matrix.

Stewardship Matrix

A stewardship matrix is a tool that charts your general stewardship actions based upon a donor’s giving level. It’s great for enhancing your annual fund strategy.

The stewardship matrix should be segmented based on your target donor groups, and it can be as granular or as general as your nonprofit needs it to be.

A matrix can be created in Excel, and it should be used as a systematic method of determining which donors receive which kind of stewardship. However, it’s important to remember that a stewardship matrix helps your nonprofit approach donors as groups, not as individuals. You’ll still need to reach out to donors on a personal level.

Mobile Giving

Mobile giving will help you steward your donors because of its convenience.

Most people use mobile devices for one purpose or another; optimizing your giving pages and nonprofit’s website for mobile will help you reach your donors where they already are.

Introducing your donors to mobile technologies like text fundraising can help you cultivate your donors into frequent givers. Frame the conversation around your gratitude, and how you want to make giving easier for your loyal donors!

Donor Database or CRM

Many organizations will likely want to invest in a donor database or CRM to streamline interactions with donors through donor profiles, especially now that there are more options available to nonprofits of all sizes. Donor databases are a comprehensive means of tracking relations with donors, recording data, and segmenting donors into key groups. 

Smaller or newer nonprofits may choose to seek out calendar software to keep track of their stewardship efforts rather than investing in a full-fledged donor database. Calendar software can be used to schedule specific stewardship meetings, events, and interactions.  

However, more and more nonprofits are switching to dedicated CRM, especially since there are now CRMs available at every price point and feature level. Even Hubspot offers a free CRM option for nonprofits!

This is Donor Stewardship Plan Guidelines

Create a Policy

Your donor stewardship policy will guide your interactions and communications with your donors. Your policy should clearly state the role of stewardship in your organization, and it should be accessible to any donors, potential or otherwise.

A stewardship policy can state your organization’s intentions and abilities upfront, so that donors know what to expect when they give. A strong stewardship policy should keep your organization on track and curb potential disappointment from donors.

Focus on the Mission

Your mission is the most important aspect of your stewardship. In your communications and reports, always focus on how the donor has furthered your mission and helped people in need.

Even though you can use promotional items or events to keep your donors engaged, these fun elements should not be the focus of your stewardship.

Grounding your stewardship efforts in your cause will keep your interactions meaningful; the last thing you want to do is appear superficial to your donors!

Respond Personally

No matter who your donor is or how much they’ve given, you should always be personal when it comes to thanking them for their contribution and following up with updates.

Be sure that all donors are recognized for:

  • Their donation.
  • The specific campaign that they donated to.
  • The overall mission that they’ve furthered.

Always thank them by their preferred name and in their preferred channel. The better you know your donors, the more you can craft your stewardship to their preferences.

Engage Donors as Active Agents

When it comes to engaging your donors, you need to treat them like the active, impactful donors that they are. Focus your engagements around your mission and how your donors play a role in furthering your cause.

Engagements can include physical opportunities for donors to visit event sites or meet board members, but they can also include simpler gestures such as asking for their feedback or opinions on your programs.

Overall, you need to recognize your donors not just for their financial support, but for their investment and active contributions to philanthropy.

How to Create a Donor Stewardship Plan

Segment Your Donor Database

What to do:

Segmenting your donors will allow you to create the most meaningful and relevant stewardship strategy.

After all, segmenting your donors allows you to group them based upon specific traits. You can segment the entirety of your database, or you can focus on specific groups of donors, such as the attendees at your latest event.

How you segment your donors will determine how you communicate with them, and how often.

How to do it:

First, you’ll need to set a goal and then segment your donor database accordingly. For example, if you’d like to focus on moving your donors up the donor pyramid, then you may want to segment them by gift size.

Then, you can create your stewardship matrix based upon the groups that you’ve chosen.

You may also need to segment your donors further in each group. For example, some major donors may prefer in-person communications, while others may prefer mail.

Segment your donors by these categories:

Gift Frequency

Knowing how often your donors give can help you create a stewardship schedule that will most appeal to their generosity.


Understanding how your donors prefer to be communicated with can help you reach them most effectively.


Factors such as age and gender can indicate how a donor may respond to your communications. Every donor is different, so use demographics as guidelines.

Average Gift Size

The most common segmentation, average gift size, can be granular ($5,000) or general (mid-level donor).

Create a Stewardship Calendar

What to do:

Create a Stewardship Calendar 

A stewardship calendar will encompass your plans for the year. Your calendar should be guided by your donor segmentation, and it can include the matrix tool discussed earlier. 

Your stewardship calendar should help you create targeted communications and engagement opportunities that have an impact. 

Need a sample donor stewardship calendar? Download our donor stewardship calendar template here. 

After all, too many stewardship communications can annoy your donors, while too little can leave them feeling unappreciated.

How to do it:

Begin planning your outreach around any annual events or fundraising campaigns that are already scheduled. You don’t, for instance, want to overlap an ask with a recognition letter.

You’ll also need to account for year-end fundraising when organizations traditionally ramp up their fundraising appeals.

Once you’ve blocked out time for these major fundraising opportunities, schedule your stewardship sparingly, over multiple communication channels throughout the rest of the year.

You'll need to schedule:


Outreach includes the updates or communications (such as birthday cards) you’ll send to donors. You’ll want to inform them about the status of your mission and the impact of their support without asking for donations.

Stewardship Events

Stewardship events are your chance to recognize your donors in person. Events can vary from casual outdoor cookouts to formal major donor galas. Knowing your donors’ preferences can help you plan the best possible event.

Recognition Programs

Recognition programs may publicly thank donors over certain intervals. These programs can include newsletters or social media posts, for example. Scheduling in advance can help you provide updates regularly.


Setting goals for your donors is important but knowing when you’d like to complete these goals is vital to assessing your stewardship program. Create a rough schedule to keep your stewardship efforts on target for your goal deadlines.

Craft a Communication Strategy

What to do:

Your communication strategy will encompass everything from thank-you letters to follow-up reports. Having a strategy in place will help you plan your communications so that you keep donors engaged without bombarding them.

Your communication strategy should be coordinated to your donor segmentation, but each and every donor should receive something personal and meaningful.

While it’s important to create guidelines for your general communications with different donor groups, it’s also important that your officers are consciously striving to make genuine connections with donors.

That may mean that your officer sends a postcard from a place that a major donor has mentioned wanting to visit, for example.

How to do it:

Though strategies will vary depending on your organization, let’s take a look at some best practices that should be applied as much as possible to all donor groups:

Donor-centric language: Your organization should focus on what the donor has accomplished with their donation. The word “you” should appear at least twice as much as “we.”

Relevant and specific: For example, a new donor should receive a communication that welcomes them to your organization. A donor who has given for many years but who has increased their gift size deserves recognition for their continued and growing support.

Your strategy should also include a general schedule so that you can send out holiday cards or seasonal appeals.

Click each icon to learn more about these communication channels:


Phone Calls


In Person

Determine Donor Engagement Opportunities

What to do:

Engaging your donors is one of the best ways to keep them invested in your organization.

You can tailor activities specifically for donor stewardship, only inviting high-level donors, or you can put a stewardship spin on your general events and activities by recognizing your donors with perks.

The point is to get your donors interacting face-to-face with your organization, so that you can create a deeper relationship.

How to do it:

Understanding your donors can help you craft tailored experiences that you know they’ll love.

To start out, grow your stewardship plan organically from your nonprofit’s events and activities. For example, if you host an annual walkathon, create a VIP space for your mid-level and major donors. This can even be done with virtual and hybrid events! 

Then, you can begin creating stewardship-centric events. Send out surveys to find out what kind of event appeals to your donors the most.

You can engage your donors with:

Personal Invites

Personal invitations to your annual events are an effective way to show donors that you value their presence in your organization. Be sure to use their preferred names and recognize their previous support.

Articles of Interest

Officers with a lot of knowledge of your donors’ interests can send them the occasional article that they’d enjoy. Doing so shows a personal interest in your donors, and it can start a valuable conversation.

Volunteer Opportunities

Special volunteer opportunities can be created so that donors can experience your nonprofit’s work firsthand, allowing them to see how your organization helps from behind the scenes.

Fellowship Activities

During stewardship events, in VIP areas or in membership programs, donors should be given the opportunity to build bonds with other donors. Facilitating conversation and fun can keep donors engaged with each other.

Create a System of Recognition

What to do:

When it comes to recognizing your donors, a strong system will ensure that no donor goes uncelebrated.

You’ll need to lay out clear guidelines for which donors receive what kind of recognition. Your donor segmentation can help with this process.

Of course, recognition should still be in line with the donors’ preferences, but general guidelines can ensure that all donors feel appreciated.

Further, a system of recognition will help mediate your donors’ expectations with what your organization can reasonably provide if donors know what kind of recognition they’ll receive.

How to do it:

Recognizing your donors will involve a program that relies on both tradition and innovation.

Traditional recognition can be very meaningful to long-time contributors. Survey your high-level and recurring contributors to find out what kinds of recognition have meant the most to them.

At the same time, you’ll want to innovate your recognition programs so that every donor feels personally celebrated.

For example, you can always incorporate your donors’ personal thoughts, pictures, or contributions into your recognition efforts.

Recognize your donors with:

Donor Walls

Allow donors to sign a wall or engrave high-level donors’ names into a designated space. That way, your donors will earn a legacy with your organization.

Honor Rolls

Honor rolls list major donors based on their giving levels. They are often incorporated into print publications, especially for event brochures.

Donor Profiles

Press releases or other “featured donor” publications and posts can recognize a special contributor to your organization and tell their story.

Naming Rights

Name building projects or in-kind donations after the donors who’ve given them or who have contributed substantially to preserve their legacies.

Final Thoughts

Creating the best donor stewardship plan for your nonprofit is an ongoing process that will require tweaks along the way. However, we hope this guide helps your organization create a donor stewardship guide that can be adapted to serve you through any situation.

If you’d like more data and resources to help you create fundraising plans that will guide your organization through any situation, download a copy of Navigating the Unknown. This report is full of data and feedback from nonprofits and donors around the country, and it will help you plan your fundraising campaigns with confidence.