Guest blogger Elise Bernard currently serves as a Regional Development Coordinator for the ALS Association of Texas in Dallas where she manages two major walk-a-thon events in Dallas and Fort Worth. She graduated from the Manship School of Mass Communication in May 2014 with a concentration in public relations and a double minor in political science and business administration. To learn more about Elise or connect with her, please click here.

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Elise Bernard, 2014 graduate of the Manship School

When I first decided to pursue a degree in Mass Communication, I can’t say I ever thought I’d end up in a job fundraising for a nonprofit organization. While I didn’t exactly land in a job that directly correlated with my degree, the lessons learned through studying public relations have proved invaluable in my career, especially in terms of stewarding donors.

As defined on the PRSA website, public relations is a “strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” The concept rings true in both for profit and nonprofit companies or organizations. In a nonprofit association, a strong functioning stewardship plan allows an organization to demonstrate appreciation while maintaining communication with supporters and potential supporters. Stewardship and public relations both boil down to relationship management. And donor stewardship is about developing deeper relationships with your donors, which helps to maximize retention and increase giving levels.

Creating and implementing a chapter-wide stewardship plan comes with a plethora of challenges. It’s often difficult to justify expenses that don’t directly correlate with immediate profit return – and good stewardship requires a budget. Whether it’s purchasing awards to recognize major donors or postcards to send to smaller scale fundraisers, stewardship costs money, and explaining the return on investment to an organization’s board of directors can be difficult. Another challenge of implementing a strong stewardship plan is that it requires participation from many staff members, including upper management and the board of directors. Not only do you have to show the board the value of implementing a stewardship plan, you also have to convince them to participate.

According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Fundraising Effectiveness Project, stewardship activities have a direct and dramatic impact on donor retention, and thus, dollar retention. In 2006, the donor retention rate was 50 percent, and it dropped to 39 percent in 2013. Stewardship is one of the most effective tools to creating transparency and communication with donors. It allows an organization to show the work being done as a direct result of donor support. Lastly, showing appreciation for donors lets them know that their support matters to the success of the organization and ultimately builds a stronger relationship between the donor and the organization.

Applying the lessons learned in the public relations courses about cultivating mutually beneficial relationships in my day-to-day work has proved invaluable. Stewardship activities help create long lasting relationships between an organization and its donors, and ultimately leads to higher donor retention. And more donors means more dollars, which allows an organization to better serve its constituents and fulfill its mission.

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