Advancing Philanthropy

The Art of Communication: Stewardship is the Year-Round Celebration of the Gift

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woman's hands holding a gift with a bow

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Gift officers often work so hard to cultivate and solicit a gift that once the gift is received, they celebrate and move on, feeling they have reached the finish line. While it is certainly acceptable to brag a little bit around the office and maybe even high-five a colleague, I’d like to challenge you to think a little differently.

Yes, it’s true that closing a gift is exciting, but I find the most joy in providing over-the-top stewardship and saying thank you all year long. I like to focus on small touches that let the donor know how much we appreciate them and share stories of the impact their gift is continuing to make—and look to do it in fun and creative ways.

Pictures and Videos Tell Great Stories of Impact

I serve as the assistant vice president of development at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital where we provide in-patient and outpatient physical therapy services for individuals recovering from traumatic injuries or illnesses. There are so many programs and services at my hospital that rely on philanthropy, so it’s easy for me to find meaningful examples on a daily basis of the impact that philanthropy is making. With my cell phone in my hand, I can stroll by the art therapy studio and find a patient creating art as a part of their healing process. I can look next door in the music therapy studio and see a patient working hard to play the guitar again. I can watch a recently injured patient trying to play wheelchair basketball for the first time. I snap a quick picture without interrupting their therapy session and head back to my office.

After securing a release that gives me permission to use the photos, I can then send the pictures to multiple donors in a personal email with a quick message saying, “thanks for making moments like this possible!” Each time I send these messages out, the donor feels special, and I often get messages back thanking me for making their day.

One of my favorite ways lately of thanking a donor is through an impactful video, which is often shot and edited from a cell phone. Our social media manager is great at capturing people and their stories, and I can easily insert a link to the video in an email. We keep the videos short and simple, yet super-impactful. I also find that sending an upbeat video on a rainy day usually gets the most reactions and responses, as it has a way to bring a smile to the face of the recipient.

Engaging Others Can Be Fun Too!

I find that engaging our clinical staff, patients, and their families as a part of the stewardship process is incredibly meaningful, too, and it also helps them better understand the work that my team and I do. I make it easy by providing thank you cards and envelopes that they can use to write a note to a donor and have them return them to me.

chilutti dog with sign that says thank youOur assistive technology program relies upon donor support, and each time a patient receives equipment to take home after they are discharged, their therapist works with them to create a thank you note and also will take a picture of them using the equipment. It’s a pretty simple process­—we provide you with equipment, and you write a thank you note. And, we find they are happy to comply!

One of my favorite thank-you messages I sent to a donor this year came from our facility dog, Nigel, and the therapist he works with. I reached out to the therapist to ask them to do something special for a loyal donor. He made a sign that said, “Thank you Lois,” and Nigel held it in his mouth, while getting his picture taken. You can imagine how giddy the donor was when she received this, and it wasn’t hard to do since the therapist knows his program relies upon donor support. All I had to do was ask!

Board Members Can Do It Too!

I have also been successful in recruiting board members to make calls to donors a few times a year to say thanks. How did I convince them to do this? I gave them two choices: you can call people and ask them for money, or you can call people who have already made a gift and simply say thank you. You can imagine which option they chose!

I make it easy by providing them with a script to use, starting with reinforcing that they really are just calling to say thank you, since, as you can imagine, it’s understandable for the person on the other end of the phone to be a bit skeptical. I ask each person to make three to five calls over 10 days and to report back to me what they learn in the calls.

I find that engaging our clinical staff, patients, and their families, as a part of the stewardship process is incredibly meaningful, too, and it also helps them better understand the work that my team and I do.

Each time this happens the board members feel good since they get to engage with donors and learn more about why they support our hospital. Donors have also shared important information or sometimes even told the board member that they were already planning their next gift. My favorite bit of information since we have been doing this was a donor sharing that we were now his number one philanthropic priority because he hears from us during the year and knows his gift is making an impact.

Impact Reports Make a Difference

Depending on the size of the gift, I have a few donors that I send quarterly impact reports to. They are produced in-house, include numbers and pictures, and share stories of how their gift has made a difference. They also help to build long-term relationships and secure repeat gifts from some of our most loyal donors.

After sending it, I often get positive messages back from the donors. In fact, I just sent one out the day before I was writing this article, and here was the response I received from the donor:

“Mark, this is amazing news. Thanks once again for all your help distributing the fund to where it’s needed the most. The tears are flowing reading all the people the fund has helped. As always, it warms my heart.”

Messages like that prove the value these reports make, and this donor has renewed a very nice gift each year for six years because she knows their support is making a difference.

Build It Into Your Schedule

I realize that some of you are thinking, “I just don’t have the time in my schedule to do this.” My suggestion to you is to find the time! Start with blocking 15 or 30 minutes a week on your schedule, and choose three or four donors each week to reach out to. Send them a message about how their gift is making an impact—in an email, a hand written card or phone call. You can choose whichever method is best for each of the donors that week.

keyboard with thank you buttonOnce you start doing this and get messages back from your donors, you will recognize that it is worth the time and effort and, if all goes well, you will want to do more! It strengthens the relationships we have with our donors, reinforces we are using their gift in the way it was intended, and lets them know we appreciate them—not just at the time they make the gift but all year long. It also makes the conversation about renewing their gift a lot easier!

I don’t look at stewardship as a chore, but really a year-round celebration of what donors’ gifts have helped us to accomplish. After all, I’ve been blessed to work with donors to help them make an impact through their philanthropy for 21 years and have yet to have a donor say, “Will you stop thanking me!”

Mark Chilutti, CFREMark Chilutti, CFRE, has raised over $35 million to improve the quality of life of individuals with disabilities during his more than 20-year career at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital–Jefferson Health in Philadelphia where he is the assistant vice president of development. His specialties are major and planned giving and donor stewardship. He has presented frequently for many AFP chapters, at AFP ICON, at AFP Spotlight Sessions and on AFP Global webinars. Mark is an Eagle Scout and a former wheelchair tennis player living with a spinal cord injury.

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08 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
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