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It’s officially my favorite time of the year! The season of Thanksgiving (it also happens to be National Gratitude Month) reminds me why our work as Advancement professionals really matters, and indeed, it is a perfect time to express my profound gratitude to our benefactors.  And for principal and presidential gift prospects, it’s even more important to capitalize on the opportunity to recognize these donors’ generosity.  In this post, we will explore creative ways to steward principal gift prospects – in this season of Thanksgiving and beyond.

To start, let’s be reminded of the definition of stewardship: the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving.  I would argue one of the core responsibilities of a gift officer is to build meaningful relationships, and the most successful principal gift officers embrace the opportunity to be good stewards of these relationships.  Many Advancement shops have dedicated stewardship and donor relations teams, but stewardship of principal gift prospects shouldn’t fall only on their shoulders.  There must be a genuine partnership between Advancement professionals across disciplines and other stakeholders in the organization that ultimately results in a highly customized stewardship plan for your most important donors.

So, what exactly does that look like, and who should be involved?  Well, the honest answer is that customized stewardship plans differ by donor and could involve leadership, students, clinicians, nurses, and peers – or all the above!  Let’s unpack these ideas with examples that perhaps you might consider deploying at your organization:

  • The role of leadership matters. Consider having your organization or department’s leadership participate in the stewardship process.  From a phone call on a donor’s birthday to a celebratory lunch with the CEO of your organization to recognize a commitment, there is great power in a leader saying thank you!
  • Include your students. For donors who invest in students, facilitate meaningful conversations between the parties involved.  Consider having a student scholarship recipient record a video message to send to your donor.  Or, facilitate a live or virtual introduction.  I once had a group of 20 scholarship recipients participate in a surprise Zoom meeting with the family who had invested so heavily in them.  It brought tears to my donor’s eyes, and it deepened the student-donor relationship.  And, it teed up another ask for that donor to invest in more students.
  • Clinicians/Faculty/Nurses define your story. While leadership and students are important, it’s just as important to remember the role of clinicians, faculty members and nurses in the stewardship of a transformational investment.  Shining the spotlight on the heroes of your organization helps donors understand their role and impact, especially when there is good news to report.  But don’t forget, it is the gift officer’s job to prepare these partners so the stewardship objectives are accomplished.
  • Remember Anniversary Gift Dates. Savvy philanthropists remember when and what they commit to your organization.  Anniversary gift dates are a perfect time to express gratitude for a significant investment.  Professionally curated impact reports – often a partnership between a gift officer and the Marketing and Communications team – demonstrate the return on investment for your donor.  Consider including a personalized note from a clinician or department head to compliment the report.
  • Don’t Discount Peers. Even prospect research has a place in the stewardship process.  Lean on your prospect research team to identify who on your board has a relationship with your donor and ask them to reach out and personally to express gratitude.  It’s one thing for the message to come from an internal stakeholder, but it’s even more powerful when a donor is recognized by a respected peer from his/her community.
  • Celebrate the highs and demonstrate sympathy when there are lows. Your most loyal benefactors are human beings, just like you and me.  And the more you know about them, the more your customized stewardship plan will reflect who they are and what they love the most.  Don’t be afraid to lean-in when it really matters, whether in good times or bad such as weddings, birthdays, holidays, the loss of a loved one, and the list goes on.

Celebrating gratitude and creating magical moments for our most loyal prospects is one of my favorite things to do because it usually puts smiles on donor’s faces.  It shows that you care and want to preserve your organization’s relationship with them.  And it demonstrates an intentional act of kindness in a world that needs more of it.  Remember, saying thank you doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.  Sometimes the most meaningful stewardship touch is an inexpensive handwritten note card that reinforces the importance of gratitude in your organization.  So, embrace creativity and celebrate the impact of transformational gifts, especially during this season of Thanksgiving.  You can never say thank you enough, and often, celebrating gratitude resets the cultivation process for a discussion about the next gift to your organization.



Will Whiting is a Principal Giving Subject Matter Expert for GOBEL.  He serves as Executive Director of Principal and Presidential Gifts at the University of Texas at Austin.  Will is inspired by the generosity of others and the impact of transformational gifts, and he strives daily to make those gifts of a lifetime occur.


ABOUT GOBEL SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS: GOBEL Subject Matter Experts are healthcare philanthropy professionals working in some of the top shops in the country, sharing best practices and insights. For more information about GOBEL’s Subject Matter Expert program, or to suggest a topic for coverage, email

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