Increasing Retention Rates with a Stewardship Checklist

It’s New Year’s Resolution time again! In that spirit, I have traded Netflix for books. I have unsubscribed from Netflix (boy, that was a super sticky Band-Aid to rip off!), and I have ordered a slew of books.

The first arrival was New York Times bestselling author, Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, referred to me by my new life/business coach, Randy Fields (another New Year’s resolution!). Yes, the pros of making checklists in 193 pages of 11 point type. My sub-resolution was to read books that will teach me something, strengthen my business, and grow my mind, so John Grisham thrillers, J.K. Rowling fantasies and Nora Roberts romances didn’t make the cut.

Upon taking the Checklist Manifesto out of the mailbox, I glanced at the first page. 62 pages later I set it down – a surprisingly, captivating read! Immediately Gawande makes a compelling and interesting case for the power of checklists. Take these examples from his book:

  • Michigan Health and Hospital Association began using checklists for the insertion of central lines into ICU patients. Within three months of checklist implementation, infection rates decreased by 66% saving more than 1,500 lives and $175 million.
  • In 2009, a US Airways flight leaving La Guardia Airport lost power in both engines forcing it to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. All 155 passengers survived. The Captain of the plane insisted that the positive outcome was the result of teamwork and procedures (checklists). The airline industry is more disciplined than any other about using checklists.
  • Mohnish Pabrai, Managing Partner of Pabrai Investment Funds, claims, “Without the checklist, I could not have gotten through a fraction of the analytic work or have had the confidence to rely on it.” After one year of using the checklist, his investments were up 160%.

So only half way through the book, I stopped reading to consider how and if checklists could help the nonprofit sector in which I work. My answer was an immediate yes, especially in regard to stewardship.

After 26 years in the nonprofit sector, I believe stewardship still remains the weakest link in the development cycle. My opinion on this is substantiated by the 2016 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report supported by ten of the most respected entities in the nonprofit sector, including the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Lilly School of Philanthropy. The report states that:

  • “The greatest losses in donors have come from lapsed new donors in all giving categories.”
  • “Over the last ten years, donor and dollar retention rates have consistently been weak – averaging below 50%.”
  • “Every 100 donors gained in 2015 was offset by 96 lost donors through attrition.”

Basically I find that most development professionals understand the concept of stewardship – things like thanking and recognizing donors; showing the impact of donors’ gifts; and creating relationship building opportunities. And if you have been one of my clients, you have my favorite phrase, “the fortune is in the follow-up” ingrained in your head. So if the profession “gets it” then why are retention rates so dismal?

I suggest these reasons:

  • Forgetfulness
    Let’s face it, if you have 500 people attending a Gala next month, your brain focuses on food, décor and music – things that are highly noticeable if missed. You may forget – or put off – calling your past donors just to “shoot the breeze.” 
  • Guilt
    I’ve talked to Development Officers who feel guilty if they aren’t sitting at a desk in the office, especially if their non-fundraising colleagues don’t understand that developing friendships is actually work. Being out of the office “getting to know people” can be so much fun it doesn’t seem right to get paid for it!
  • Evaluation Criteria
    Not many job reviews include a bonus section for how many times you took a donor to coffee or what percentage of your donors received personalized birthday cards. Nonprofits reward on “show me the money” but not so much on “show me how the money was raised.”
  • Ego
    Most nonprofit people think that their mission is the most important mission around.

They believe their case is main reason people donate. I actually heard a nonprofit Director say, “Our organization doesn’t need to schmooze our donors; we are so well regarded…and who wouldn’t want to give to kids with cancer?” Network for Good reports that the number one reason people give is because “someone I know asked me to give.” According to, “Donors stop giving when you don’t acknowledge them.” No matter how important the mission, these stats remain true, so just imagine how much money that Director was missing out on by not schmoozing!

The good news is that a checklist can change all of this! First and foremost, a checklist eliminates forgetfulness and putting things off. It can alleviate guilt as the checklist itself validates the important work steps needed for proper stewardship to increase donor retention. A checklist, by default, allows for collection of recorded data which can easily be added into evaluation processes. And most importantly, it doesn’t allow for ego to get in the way; I argue that a successfully working stewardship checklist will increase donor retention so much that any ego-based thinking will be trumped by the statistics.

Following Gawande’s suggested format (even the non-serifed font!), I suggest a stewardship checklist somewhat like this:

OBJECTIVE: To insure that annual fund donors are properly stewarded post donation

1 day – 3 months post donation3 – 6 months post donation6 – 9 months post donation9 – 12 months post donation
Tax-deductibility thank you letter sentRecognizeSurveySend annual report or update
Personalized thank you letter sentShow impact of giftInvite to serve as volunteerRemind about impact of their gift last year
CallInvite to mission eventCheck-in just to say helloInvite to give again

NOTE: Insert checklist item “send birthday wishes” into appropriate column.

According to Gawande, good checklists are short, precise, efficient, and to the point. They are not meant to spell out everything. For example, “recognize” has different meanings depending on the amount of the donor’s gift. “Recognize” for a $25 donor may mean that the admin staff adds the donor to a list in the annual report. “Recognize” for a $1,000 donor may mean that the Development Director may do a special “shout out” to the donor on Facebook, and “recognize” for a $1 million donor may mean that the donor’s name is included on a building! Regardless of the details of how the bullet point is accomplished, the point is accomplishing it (and on time).

To summarize, donor retention is weak with no signs of turning around. The main reason donors do not continue to donate is because they were not acknowledged (and I’m not just talking about a generic, letterhead thank you note). But acknowledging donors is easily forgotten, and many feel guilty “just making friends” on the work clock. Moreso, nonprofit bosses (and Board members) are focusing too heavily on short-term budget goals, and many nonprofit egos assume that all that stewardship stuff is just important for donors of non-important causes.

Atul Gawande makes extremely compelling arguments backed with impressive statistics that all industries have done or can do better with the implementation of simple checklists. He gives examples of success from industries such as healthcare, airlines, finance, and food, as well as stories from times of crisis like Hurricane Katrina. And I don’t see any reason why the nonprofit sector cannot apply this inexpensive, simple approach to solving one of our sector’s biggest problems: retention. This new year, I encourage our sector to implement stewardship checklists. Let’s be a chapter of success in Gawande’s next book!

By Tammy Moloy, Partner and Senior Consultant at Ashley|Rountree and Associates