Flip Your Donor Pyramid on Its Side for Deeper Engagement

We’re not the first to opine the traditional fundraising pyramid is dead, but our reason might surprise you.

Jargon alert! “Fundraising pyramid/ladder” is fundraising speak for a way to categorize, engage, and move donors up to larger gifts one level or step at a time (see Traditional Fundraising Pyramid below). A common fundraising approach is to get donors in when they’re new to your organization, young, launching their career, and have low(er) giving capacity, and then to move them toward larger gifts over the years as their affinity with your organization (and bank balance) grows.

Donors are labeled by their capacity to give, rather than by their values, interests, or goals. This very dispassionate approach leaves fundraisers categorizing people similarly who may actually have very little in common.

You won’t have a hard time finding opinions and blog posts suggesting the fundraising pyramid is actually more of a circle – some even refer to it as a “vortex.” The point being that donors don’t only join your pyramid at the bottom and move up, sometimes they join you in the middle, as “annual givers” or “middle value givers,” or they may even surprise you by showing up as a top-of-the-pyramid “major planned giver” at the end of their life. That’s all true, but it’s still extraordinarily impersonal, and therefore downright ineffective to think of these important stakeholders this way.

Most importantly, it leaves many prospective donors out. If you only target people with traditional giving profiles based on prospective wealth, you may inadvertently reinforce negative race and class stereotypes, perpetuating exclusivity, rather than inclusivity, and failing to entice new types of donors who might otherwise be interested in your work.

If fundraising is a relationship proposition, how then, have so many fundraisers failed to consider WHO they’re in relationship with? Limiting the view of donors to their giving level and a few demographic details leaves out their dreams and values that will allow for more meaningful connection. Rather than creating communications for “mid-tier donors,” wouldn’t the message from a museum be better received if written to people who “believe that arts and culture are the key to successful democracy?” And wouldn’t organizing donors by values be more inclusive, therefore increasing fundraising success?

When you think of your donors through the lens of what both you and they value —instead of superficial labels focused on how much you might get from them – you create an inclusive conversation that invites more donors in and deepens the relationship for both of you.

Here’s how to flip your fundraising pyramid on its side to increase the depth of your donor engagement:

1. Name Your Values

Unpack and articulate the four or five values your organization and your donors share; the ones that will inspire them to action. For example, our campaign will increase access to education for students who’ve been historically excluded due to systemic racism. Note that the values are equity and inclusion, made possible by access. That’s your “Value/Motivator 1” (see Values Fundraising Pyramid above). Repeat this exercise for as many values as your organization has, or for each of the motivators your fundraising campaign will inspire.

2. Connect With a Person

Instead of a faceless group of donors, develop an imaginary person who deeply cares about each value/motivator. Really get to know each person. What matters most to them and what must they understand about your fundraising campaign to see the intersection of their values and your goals?

Give them a name related to that value (building on the example above, call them “Evan Equity”), describe why they care so deeply about the value, and importantly, what they would need to hear you say to assure them your organization/campaign is the solution to it.

Resist the urge to describe them as rich/poor, old/young, BIPOC/white, male/female, and avoid at all costs describing their giving capacity. Instead, picture this person as both a first time donor and a major donor who isn’t giving to capacity – who happen to care deeply about the same thing. One’s race, age, ethnicity, or gender identity is irrelevant. When understanding your donors’ values is your goal, inclusion is the result. They will step up (to their giving capacity) when they trust you’ll make an impact against that value or values they hold dear. Repeat this exercise for each of the values/motivators.

3. Talk with Your Donors, Not at Them

Successfully engaging these values-driven people you’ve taken the time to get to know allows you to develop your fundraising campaign strategy, messages, and outreach tools with their needs, not yours, as your central focus. No longer nameless donors in a meaningless category, they are people looking for a way to put their own values into action through your organization. Showing them how your campaign meets their urgent goals results in the fertile relationship that will serve them and your work now and for years to come.

Fundraising campaigns that use this technique of personal development invite more new donors in, inspire former donors to engage in ways they haven’t historically, and turn donations into relationships, not transactions.