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Just what the bloody hell is ‘stewardship’?

Just what the bloody hell is ‘stewardship’?

I was having tea with a newcomer to fundraising last week and, as we were discussing what’s hot and what’s not in the sector, I brought up the subject of ‘stewardship’. Before I could get any further, she leaned forward, motioned for me to shut up with her hand, and said: “Just what exactly is stewardship?” (She didn’t actually say ‘bloody hell’; it just looks better in the headline.)

“Good question,” I replied. “No-one is really sure.”

And we’re not, are we? Get 10 fundraisers round a table and ask them to define fundraising stewardship (and I mean really define it, the same way you could give a concise, copper-bottomed definition for any other concept, such as evolution by Darwinian natural selection, free-market economics or dialectical materialism – or even relationship fundraising) and you’d get 10 very different answers.

In fact you probably wouldn’t get 10 complete answers because at least four would run out of jargon before they reached the end.

[BTW, ‘stewardship’ is relatively easy to define – look in the nearest dictionary; it’s putting it into a fundraising context that gives everyone the screaming abdabs.]

I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the whole concept of ‘relationship fundraising’ – to which stewardship is, in some way, though no-one is yet sure exactly how, inexorably linked – since I first had a fundraiser say to me: “Oh gosh no. My job is not just to raise money. That’s an incredibly simplistic view. My job is to build relationships.” Which was in 2002 if you’re interested, on the day England played Nigeria in the World Cup, and the person who said it is now quite a big player in the agency world.

To me that’s just daft. A fundraiser’s job is so obviously to raise money. I mean the clue is in the job title, isn’t it?

If you’re not convinced, compare and contrast this equivalent statement from a hypothetical direct mail fundraiser: “My job is not just to raise money. It’s to send lots of mailpacks to our donors.”

Sending mailpacks is a means to an end – raising money – and building relationships is a different means to the same end: it is not the end in itself.

So now I’m even more enthralled with the stewardship debate, which is like the sequel to relationship fundraising. Or: ‘Relationship Fundraising 2 – this time it’s even more personal.’ [Ken – if you want to borrow that for a book title you can have it on me.]

What particularly interests me is that just about everyone means something different by stewardship to the next person, so much so that two people who both thought they were discussing ‘stewardship’ could be talking about completely different things altogether.

That’s why I’d like to urge everyone who reads this blog post to complete the stewardship survey ( which is currently being run by Gordon Michie at Relationship Marketing.

Because Relationship Marketing is a client of mine [I promised UK Fundraising’s Howard Lake that I’d always identify my clients if I wrote about them in my blog – man of my word, Howard], I’ve also been able to watch the results come in and there are already some patterns forming. Some of the questions have been quite cleverly-worded to test some ‘embedded hypotheses’, though I can’t say too much about these for fear of prejudicing the survey.

But I do think it’s going to make a major contribution to the stewardship debate so once again I’d urge you to take 10 minutes to visit to complete the survey.

This time next month, we might a little bit closer to finding out just what the bloody hell stewardship is.

Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).

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