The President as Steward

Volunteer management inspiration: Image of a light bulb on a street with a warm glow.

by Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

While virtually every advancement operation has a stewardship function, presidents would be wise to ensure that the totality of the stewardship obligation is not presumed to be the province of a single office (often led by a single person). Presidents can create a culture of accountability by speaking to the importance of private donors, not just fundraising totals, to students, faculty and staff at significant campus events and through major channels of communication.

When a gift commitment is secured, presidents assume the ethical, moral and legal responsibility to see that their institutions do as promised. They assume the same responsibility for all gift agreements inherited upon inauguration. New presidents would be wise to ask for a review of major gifts received in the past decade before they start making their introductory rounds. This high-level review sends a powerful and constructive signal throughout the organization.

In addition, presidents should play a personal role in expressing gratitude for, and stressing the central importance of, private gifts. While gift acknowledgements and endowment reports are important and appreciated by donors, they are insufficient to the preservation of strong personal ties. Presidents can strengthen relationships with donors by being more personal and spontaneous. For instance, presidents might commit to writing personal notes to 50 significant donors over the course of the year. They might carry that list with them and express their gratitude as the mood fits and when the moment seems right.

How to Get Started

Create stewardship trees, like telephone trees used in a crisis response where senior officers bear the responsibility for communicating through a chain-of-command to ensure the timely release and accuracy of information. But in this case create contact trees so that your senior officers can proactively reach out to major donors. Create a system where top officers of the institution with an external role are each given a list of major donors.

Each agrees to write a handwritten letter or make a personal call to a portfolio of current donors over the course of a year. Each agrees to reflect on his or her portfolio and to think of ways of expressing his or her thanks to each person. In this way, many positive interactions can be orchestrated and many donors can be made to feel valued. Also, don’t hesitate to recruit your board; ask each member to become a relationship manager for four to eight of your institution’s most generous donors. Encourage board members to reach out regularly, to seek advice, and to invite those they are stewarding to interesting events and activities.

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Cover: James Langley's Fundraising for Presidents (Book)

Foundation to Jim Langley's thinking is the axiom that an effective president does so much more than raise funds and shake hands.

Your institution’s president is uniquely positioned to scan the horizon and help develop and communicate a vision of the future to prospective donors. In Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide, James Langley, president and founder of Langley Innovations and past vice president for advancement at Georgetown University, contends that the president’s primary role in fundraising is not to ask for money but to create the conditions that attract significant philanthropic investments.