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Best Practice

Stewardship Overview

Stewarding Donors
| 3 minutes to read
Last Updated: 08-27-2021


Donor relations is the comprehensive effort of any nonprofit that seeks philanthropic support to ensure that donors experience high-quality interactions with the organization that foster long-term engagement and investment. This effort is commonly thought to have four elements: stewardship, acknowledgment, recognition and engagement.

Stewardship and acknowledgment are the activities that take place after a gift is received. It is important to note that stewardship is most meaningful when it is tailored to the donor (i.e., one size doesn’t always fit all) and is coordinated. These activities take many forms:

  • Receipting: Every donor should receive a receipt for their gift to let them know their gift has been received. This also serves as a document for tax purposes. The Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association (WFAA) sends receipts to every donor, no matter the size of the gift.
  • Acknowledgment: Thanking a donor in a timely manner for their contributions is the basis and groundwork of donor relations. Expressing gratitude is not just good manners; it is also good business. Donors who feel appreciated are more likely to give again and continue to support our causes. Acknowledgments can be sent from the chancellor, WFAA leadership, deans, school/college/unit leadership, volunteers, students, etc., depending on the size and scope of the gift. Acknowledgments should be coordinated among WFAA development staff and campus partners. Our current acknowledgment practices are:
    • The chancellor acknowledges gifts of $100K+ to the university and gifts of $5K+ to the Chancellor’s Annual Fund.
    • The president/CEO of WFAA acknowledges gifts of $25K+ to the university.
    • School/college/units should acknowledge gifts of $1K+; many areas also acknowledge gifts that are below this threshold.

Learn more about our acknowledgment guidelines and best practices.

  • Financial stewardship: On at least an annual basis, a donor should receive a complete accounting of their donated funds. WFAA sends endowment reports on an annual basis.
  • Impact reporting: The goal of impact reporting is to inform donors of the usage, impact, and investment of their philanthropic giving. This important part of stewardship is an opportunity for the organization to tell the donor the story about the impact of their philanthropy on the institution. Current impact reporting practices across school/college/units include:
    • Faculty/professorship awards
    • Graduate fellowships
    • Undergraduate scholarships
    • General impact of giving on school/college/units

Recognition: There are many ways to creatively recognize donors both privately and publicly. Not all donors seek public recognition for their philanthropy, so it is important to note that one should respect anonymity if the donor desires it. Components of good donor recognition can include but are not limited to the following:

  • Naming opportunities
  • Permanent or physical recognition (donor walls, benches, art, etc.)
  • Recognition societies
  • Public recognition (grand openings, groundbreaking, general events, etc.)

Currently, WFAA has four recognition societies:

  • 1848 Society recognizes those who include the University of Wisconsin–Madison in their annual philanthropic planning by donating $1,000 or more.
  • Bascom Hill Society recognizes those who have made cumulative gifts of $50,000 or more to the university.
  • Legacy Society honors and celebrates alumni and friends who have made a commitment to support the University of Wisconsin–Madison through a deferred gift.
  • Van Hise Society recognizes those who have been most generous to the university, having made gifts totaling $1 million or more.

Many schools/colleges/units have their own recognition societies, such as the Benchers’ Society in UW Law School and the Middleton Society in the School of Medicine and Public Health.

Engagement: Most donors’ need/desire to be engaged falls into three areas:

  • Access — donors desire access to leadership, those who benefit from their philanthropy, and other access on campus.
  • Information — donors want to be treated as a valued partner and insider, and to learn information about those they support and the impact their philanthropy has made.
  • Experiences — donors want interaction and experiences; whether a hard-hat tour, a chance to meet students/faculty, volunteering, giving a lecture, or participating in an event/ceremony, experiences are impactful and create memories and engagement that can last a lifetime.

Donor relations and stewardship are collaborative efforts. All of the activities mentioned above are most meaningful to donors when they are coordinated and involve the beneficiaries of their philanthropic giving. The important work of donor relations and stewardship is best carried out when WFAA and campus development staff work hand in hand to acknowledge and engage donors to show the impact of their generosity and the transformative power of this university.

Thank you for all you do on behalf of the university, and we look forward to working with you on your donor relations and stewardship efforts. For specific areas mentioned above, you can always contact your development support liaison or WFAA’s stewardship team.