By Peter Lannoo • May 10, 2021

    Automation vs. Personalization: How Your Stewardship Can Have Both

    I was recently introduced to a fascinating concept: McDonaldization. It is organizational procedures that systemize the means of production in order to become more efficient and to produce calculable results. Reducing work to quantifiable tasks can help gauge success and make adjustments when necessary. But regardless of productivity, any process under these conditions will be a “dehumanizing experience.”

    Automation vs. Personalization: How Your Stewardship Can Have Both

    In some cases, the need for efficient stewardship is taken to a whole new level and the dehumanizing effect of McDonaldization takes over. Somewhere in the depths of policy or procedural documents is a chart that directs how, when, and by whom, stewardship should be administered. It is usually dictated by gift amount and can contain various details such as what gift level receives a letter vs. an email, what level gets the signature of someone in a higher position than another, and what level gets a phone call or personal visit from the highest-ranking person in the organization. Some even go as far as to determine perks or access to services for certain donors. These are prime examples of McDonaldization as they have reduced thanking donors to a mechanized series of procedures with little room for variation or personalization.

    It allows fundraisers to prioritize the largest donors in order to show respect for their contributions and hopefully keep them giving. It also prevents donors of any size from falling through the cracks and not getting acknowledged at all. But of all areas in fundraising, stewardship is one that needs the delicacies of human touch. Yes, acknowledging a gift quickly should be an institutional goal, but is time the most important part of stewardship? Or is the message about how that donor has made an impact, regardless of dollar amount, what really counts when it comes to gratitude?

    Major donors get “white-glove” treatment, with personalized thank-yous, social media recognition, and galas. And if the adage holds true that 90% of giving comes from the top 10% of donors, it’s a shrewd strategy. However, by applying a McDonaldization approach outside of your top donors, your future giving pipeline will quickly dwindle. In 10 years, will the top 10% look the same, or will you expect it to be filled with donors that are currently receiving template "thank yous" that serve less value than the tax receipt? 

    McDonaldization: Organizational procedures that systemize the means of production in order to become more efficient and to produce calculable results, reducing work to quantifiable tasks to help gauge success and make adjustments when necessary.

    To address this concern, most organizations have turned to automated stewardship processes for a quick turnaround with a boilerplate “thank you”. This enables fundraisers and leadership to assure themselves (and the board) that every gift is stewarded. But, as J. Travis McDearmon points out, this reduces stewardship to a checked box. Especially for larger organizations dealing with high volumes of donors, the only answer, short of scaling the fundraising team’s size, is to automate. Unfortunately, automation is a tradeoff of volume at the expense of personalization. With complete personalization taking up valuable bandwidth, but automation seeming cold and impersonal, is there anywhere else to turn?

    Rather than an either-or, personalization and automation can be a yes-and process, provided automation is used wisely. Of course, the most personal parts of a fundraiser’s day should remain personal, because that’s what is actively contributing to a relationship with a donor. No software can replace that. Where automation can help, however, is in the parts of the day that lurk in the background but take up considerable time. Prioritizing, pulling together information, drafting, and logging actions are all essential duties of a fundraiser that can be automated with no negative impact on relationships. Instead, the focus remains on actions.


    Northern Kentucky recently experienced a windfall from personally thanking a small gift that was noticed thanks to automation. As McDearmon points out, potential major donors will often send “test gifts” to see what kind of response they elicit from the fundraising team. If they don’t receive the personalized stewardship to be expected from a donor-centric organization, they may take their gift elsewhere. A donor made a “test gift” of $50 to NKU, and after a real thank-you from a fundraiser, they committed a major gift and a scholarship. This gift may not have been stewarded personally without the help of automation setting up the personalized message. Though it may seem like a flash-in-the-pan occurrence, time and time again stewardship has led to future increased giving. Is your mix of automation and personalization allowing you to not only reach all donors, but reach them meaningfully?

    See a Gravyty demo today and learn how you can make stewardship a conversation-driving branch of your fundraising process without putting more work on your gift officers

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