Written by: Richard Fisher
Is it more important to steward donors inside campaigns or between them? Per our experts below, the answer is yes.
Nature abhors a vacuum. So do our donors. Many educational institutions seem to be constantly in campaign mode and, in some cases, this is true. However, there is usually a break between public campaigns, lest they be perceived as mere promotions, like a McDonald’s sandwich. Yet the hiatus between public campaigns remains a unique period and different institutions deal with it in different ways.
St. Andrew’s College, an independent boys’ school in Ontario, has a revolving slate of three campaigns each with different aims, so at any given time one campaign will be live and two will be ‘quiet’. Other institutions, like the University of Toronto, effectively roll from one public campaign straight in to the quiet phase of another. For Acadia University in Nova Scotia, there is a definite shift between campaigns when stewardship becomes the #1 priority: “This is the most crucial time in the stewardship cycle when the impact of a gift needs to be demonstrated to the donor” says Nancy Handrigan, VP of Advancement (Interim) at Acadia. It is a time to ramp up stewardship, not slow down. Stewardship activity needs to be a constant because nobody gives into a vacuum.
Does the nature of stewardship change between campaigns?
Per our experts, not so much. All the above institutions emphasize retaining multiple touch-points in a continuing fashion, regardless of whether the institution is in campaign mode or not. Simple things like keeping donors informed with regular communications help nurture the feeling among donors that they have the inside track. Susan Wright, Director of Stewardship at McMaster University says: “In a healthy stewardship relationship we should not be afraid to share difficult news along with the good. Either way, our donors appreciate being told first by the University before they read the news elsewhere.” This philosophy does not change regardless of the campaign cycle.
How to get the most out of a campaign hiatus
Never rest on your laurels. Per the biblical parable, do not bury your talents. Stewardship is always about growth, not preservation.
Quiet phases don’t have to be quiet. Good news should always be spread far and wide – success is an excellent antidote to donor fatigue. Internally, the quiet phase is the time to involve key campaign leaders in setting the strategies and the priorities for a new campaign from the get-go, not when they are fully baked. Active quiet phases and shorter hiatuses between campaigns go a long way towards boosting performance in the short and long term.
Keep it personal. Stewardship activity should be a constant but it should not feel mechanical. There is still room for a personal touch, especially in quieter times. At St. Andrew’s College Greg Reid, Executive Director of Advancement, is a keen advocate of the ‘relationship’ contact i.e. contact without a specific (t)ask in mind: “This kind of outreach is highly appreciated and is especially important for St. Andrew’s. We have a relatively small donor/alumni base, so it is something we can genuinely deliver on.”
Build the team. With or without campaigns, stewardship is a team sport. What is unique to the hiatus period is that senior players may have more time to help steward donors without all the whirlwind activity of a campaign. Team stewardship is about creating a receptive environment so that when the President or Dean is brought in to the mix, they can be that much more effective.
Plan for change. Hiatus periods also offer a unique window for long-term planning. Even leadership transitions – which are a feature of university life not a bug -offer great opportunities to spark new perspectives on both sides, if planned properly. In times of transition the team already built around the donor provides the space where creative change can happen.
Don’t neglect the basics. Giving circles still motivate but more often as a tool for building a donor community rather than any Pavlovian desire to ‘get to the next level’. Both St. Andrew’s and McMaster have initiatives based on the longevity of giving, as well as the amount. Alumni programs provide a ready-made framework for engagement and, the more alumni become involved, the more their engagement becomes self-sustaining. Engagement precedes philanthropy in all but the most unusual of circumstances, and team stewardship is the thread that runs through the entire relationship.
Don’t forget your stewardship team. Away from the cut and thrust of a campaign, the hiatus is a great time to make sure that your stewardship teams are acknowledged and recognized. If your campaign has been a success, there should be more than enough credit to go round.
Although the hiatus between campaigns may seem like a vacuum to the outsider, it is precisely this period that provides a ‘sweet spot’ for stewardship activity. To use an analogy from nature, the proverbial duck may look serene above the waterline but you can be sure there is fierce activity below.