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The goal of donor relations is to retain current donors and keep them engaged with our institutions. If that is successful, the savings is great and their value and longevity grows. 

Donor relations is an umbrella-like term that encompasses four main functions, or pillars of the philosophical basis for donor relations.  In the past the terms stewardship and donor relations were used synonymously. Many offices of donor relations still have the term stewardship attached to their titles but the vestiges of the past are not quick to change in academia. The major difference is that stewardship is tied to the gift the donor gives; one cannot “steward” a donor, only their giving. But an organization can engage and relate to donors, with stewardship being one part of the overall donor relations strategy, 

The four pillars of donor relations serve as a guidepost for effective donor relations activities, and the first two pillars of acknowledgment and stewardship are not optional but instead foundational. Building a donor relations program that is effective, powerful and strategic relies on a group of professionals dedicated to a single mission of donor retention and sustained if not increased giving.

These pillars are the baseline but are certainly not the only activities that an office can perform to enhance relationships with donors. The first step to success in donor relations should always be an audit or assessment of the existing programs in place, comparing those activities with documented best practices.

The primary purpose of donor relations stems from the need to inform donors of the usage and investment of their philanthropic giving. This is pure stewardship. Stewardship pertains to the gift that the donor has entrusted to the organization. Whether it be a gift to a restricted or capital fund, or unrestricted monies, the donor expects accountability and transparency from the organization. Thus, stewardship is not only the right thing to do, but is inextricable from the philanthropic process.

The second pillar of the architecture of donor relations sets the standard for the future of the relationship between the donor and the organization. Acknowledgment encompasses some if not all of the following responsibilities: receipts, acknowledgments, gift agreements, and leadership appreciation processes. At some organizations, donor relations has no responsibility for receipts and gift agreements because these are required by tax law, GAAP, or both. However, at minimum, leadership acknowledgments or organization-wide thank you letters are always included.

In the past, donor recognition meant specific things to organizations, honor rolls of donors in an annual report or print piece, donor walls erected on campuses, plaques filled with brass, giving clubs, giving societies and press releases touting large donations. The times have changed. Donor recognition is the fastest changing pillar in the donor relations profession. Donors want recognition both publicly and privately in the way donors want to be recognized. Innovative programs that are devising creative ways to meet this demand are successful in their market.

Often donors are asked what they want from an organization and the following three donor desires are repeatedly reported: access,
information and experiences. Access is defined as insider direct connection to the leadership, the beneficiaries of their philanthropy and others within an organization. Information means that donors want insider knowledge before they read about it in the news; they
want to be treated as a valued partner. Experiences are things that money cannot buy; a tour of a facility, a release of an animal back to the ocean, working in the fish kitchen, or a chance to participate in something that otherwise would not be attainable without their

relationship with the organization.

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