Donor Relations: So Much More Than “Thank You”

By Sarah E. Sims

Donor relations is a dynamic, growing field. It is multifaceted and covers a broad portfolio of activities and responsibilities. Traditionally defined as simply “the people who thank donors,” donor relations professionals find ourselves in a much more diverse, creative, nuanced and even technical world that goes far beyond a simple act of gratitude.

The donor relations field offers many different paths and career directions. It is a place where you can marry creative design, storytelling, and metrics into one project or initiative. Thinking holistically about the donor giving experience, we are literally in charge of everything but the ask.

We make connections in big and little ways every single day. Those connections build relationships, tell important stories, and ultimately affect whether a donor chooses to give again. They create an experience, not a product. Donor relations professionals make organizations better, stronger and more successful every day. Whether you carry out the actual work or not does not matter because donor relations is at the heart of it all: working as donor advocates, air traffic controllers and detail masters. We are the donor’s voice.

students smiling with sign that says "thank you donors"

Photo Credit: University of Florida

So if you are moving into donor relations for the first time, successfully running a stewardship shop that hums along beautifully or are a senior professional tasked with revamping a tired program, here are a few key things to keep in mind.

  • Infuse strategy at every turn. Every initiative that your team carries out should point directly back to an organizational priority, campaign initiative or fundraising goal. A donor relations annual business plan should be aligned with that of your fundraising team. It’s wonderful to produce beautiful impact reports, custom videos and elaborate acknowledgement letter pyramids, but at the end of day, are they actively advancing an organizational goal? If not, than the lack of strategy is your jumping-off point in reevaluating the program and resources required to get it done.
  • Design and build a shop that can steward the entire donor pyramid. Whether you are a shop of one or 10, you need to organize your efforts in a way that you can touch or communicate gratitude and impact to donors of all sizes to your organization. This will require tiering, prioritizing and thoughtfully allocating resources. Apply the rules of personalization vs. customization and don’t sweat perfection.
  • Develop and track key metrics to demonstrate the value of your work. As donor relations professionals, we often struggle to quantify our work in the same manner as our development officer counterparts. But in the end, we must track donor relations activity in order to quantify value, progress, and return on investment. By evaluating the successes and downfalls of our teams, we can ensure everything we do serves a fundraising purpose. Take the time to evaluate your program and strategize next steps based on your metrics.

Sarah Sims is the executive director of donor relations at the University of Florida. She is co-chair of CASE’s Annual Conference for Donor Relations Professionals

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Join us at the Annual Conference for Donor Relations Professionals in San Diego, June 3-5, 2019, to learn more about these important topics and how institutions across the country are tackling the challenges of our field.

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