Fundraising: Donor Relations vs. Stewardship

After decades in fundraising, I get really excited when someone or something stops me in my tracks and makes me go, “hmmm.”

It happened recently. It was something somewhat radical yet so simple. But it needed to seep into my consciousness, which took about a day. So don’t dismiss this idea; give it a chance to marinate in your brain.

Apparently, there’s a difference between “stewardship” and “donor relations.”

Like many of you, I’ve always used the words interchangeably. But according to Julia S. Emlen, editor of the new-ish Journal of Donor Relations and Stewardship, there’s a difference.

It was tempting to dismiss this whole notion, but I know that Ms. Emlen is probably one of the very best thinkers on the topic today, so I paid attention.

Here’s the difference: “stewardship” is related to the gift, while “donor relations” is about the donor.

Here are my definitions of the two, inspired by Ms. Emlen’s work.


Stewardship is the outcome of comprehensive, gift-based activities related to ensuring compliance with donor intent, and designed to build trust between philanthropists and the nonprofit organizations they choose to support.

Some examples of how you conduct good stewardship are:

  • Sending acknowledgment letters within 24-48 hours of when you receive the gift.
  • Preparing a formal gift agreement that codifies donor intent, recognition, schedule of payment, and other important points.
  • Conducting spot audits throughout the year to make sure that the gift is being used according to the donor’s wishes.
  • Sending an annual report on how the gift was used.
  • Sending a follow-up tax letter in January of each year.

Donor Relations

Donor Relations is the outcome of donor-based activities that seek to deliver the messages of the organization to philanthropists in order to attract and sustain their philanthropy for the realization of the mission of the organization.

Here are some ideas for great donor relations tactics:

  • Sending a welcome kit after their first gift.
  • Offering tours of your facility to your donor to see your services in action.
  • Inviting them to meet some of the beneficiaries of your organization.
  • Inviting them to volunteer
  • Sending birthday and holiday greetings.
  • Including them in an annual “insiders’ look” event for donors.

Of course, there are many more ideas for donor relations and stewardship. The point is that I think we should all contemplate the notion that they are not the same thing, and to make sure that we have deliberate plans for both.

Why? Because in so many organizations, these activities are often done last minute, as an afterthought — if at all. We know (you do know this, right?) that it costs a lot more to acquire a donor than it does to renew a donor.

In conclusion, let me jump up on my soapbox for a minute and say this: if you don’t know how to your going to thank your donors and keep them engaged BEFORE you ask for your first gift, then don’t even bother asking.

Glenn is a fundraising strategist who loves working with small- to mid-size organizations that want to innovate and grow. Check out his website at, and to find out how he can help you, email him at You can follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

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