Fundraising Blog

What Happened to the Donor Pyramid?

Thinking of your donor base as a traditional triangle with the greatest number of donors at the bottom level, with middle-level donors (those whom you’ve cultivated and brought to the place they now hold), and with the top donors (major money, major influence) in the forever-tightening angle at the apex.

As you might imagine, this traditional schematic (like the food pyramid) no longer works as a model of how we raise funds today.

 Today’s model needs to be much more flexible.  People don’t come in at entry level, suffer through the cultivation process, and end up leaving their planned gift upon their exit from the top of the pyramid.

 Today, we may not hold onto a donor for life.  There are many more competing causes offering ever more opportunities to make a difference.  With social media people are exposed to many more types of events to attract their attention.  We know much more about disease processes and research, about environmental concerns, about how to reduce human suffering and build communities.

 Today we need to focus on the donor, not the schematic.  You’ve heard this one hundred times, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

Your fundraising energy needs to be focused on the donors and potential donors, where they are, what they are interested in, ways in which they prefer to help.  Some of your “loyal” donors may move their highest energy to another project; that’s okay.  Be sure you keep in touch with them in some personal way and give them a call when something of special interest to them comes up.  See if there’s a joint project that may connect your cause and theirs.  Donors move in and out of our sphere of influence; appreciate that they are still involved.

 Volunteer leaders may move in and out of your limelight, too.  That’s why you need a constant influx of new people, new projects.  Interviewing volunteers, old and new, is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of what the latest “buzz” is all about.

 Don’t be locked into the parameters of your pyramid.  If a new person has an outside-the-box idea, give it a chance to energize others in your circle—or others not yet in your circle.  If you have a supporter who can advise you on energizing people via social media, do it!

 Multiply your interactions with donors and prospects.  Today it takes a fresh and ever-changing strategy to rise to the top of all the clutter.  Just as the Ice Bucket Challenge illustrated:  no one knows what will light the next fire.  It won’t be you, if you’re not out there pitching.









Heard Enough About the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Feeling challenged to top it?  Joking aside, look at the Challenge and see what you can learn!

 What made it work?  For one thing, it’s a crazy, attention-getting idea!  It’s funny, it became visual, viral.  For another, a fundraiser didn’t create it!  It was the product of an enthusiastic young person interested in the cause!

So, just maybe, the key to creating something new and different enough to attract people beyond your regular donor base is to look for something zany and look to young people to come up with some ideas that maximize the potential of social media to go viral.

 Maybe young people aren’t very high on your radar. After all, they don’t yet have much money or interest in traditional donating.  However, they do have enthusiasm; they like a quick response; they have a lot of friends; and, for all you know, they may have a personal interest in bringing attention to your cause.  And they “live” in the interconnected world—where tomorrow’s donors will be found.

 Maybe you’ve put all your focus on traditional fundraising and your traditional audience.  Who knows what might happen if you open your eyes to a wider world?

 Maybe you’ve never sought out a celebrity connection.  It’s always a good idea, especially when you’re trying to bring a fresh interest to your story—and especially when you’re targetting beyond your normal audience.

 Maybe you thought this new kind of fundraising wasn’t dignified.  How does dignified factor into $88 million dollars?  It may take some teaching to convince your board to try something way out.  But it will be worth it!

 Some earlier versions of zany fundraising have been:  bathtub races, jail the donor, buck-a-cup of coffee, flash mobs.  Name the ones you’ve seen or participated in!  Social media adds a multiplication factor to this type of event.  How will you take advantage of this new opportunity?


Who “Wrote” That?

If the average reader of your appeal letters/emails reads only the first paragraph and then looks to the bottom of the page before deciding to spend any more time on it, be sure you’re working that bottom-of-the-page position.

Whoever designs your letter may suggest a different font for a postscript or a “handwritten” marginal note, but it’s your job to see that this special visual element works! 

 Make sure it’s easy to read; our donors are aging.      

Use this design element sparingly so it is a highlight and not clutter. 

Use a font that is appropriate for the “signer”; at least preserve the illusion that a specific human made the note.

 The reason we use “handwriting” in direct mail letters is to draw the reader in.  If it distracts, or is hard to decipher, you’re wasting your effort.

Lively Newsletters—How Do They Do It?

Whatever the frequency of your newsletter, make each one fresh, unique, and valuable to the reader.  You may think repeated information provides an additional hit, but it doesn’t if the donor ignores it.

It’s too easy to fall into the habit of rerunning the announcement of your gala, calls for volunteers, upcoming education schedule, etc.  The problem with this is that the reader sees something he’s read before and assumes that he needn’t read further.  Even worse, the reader begins to regard your communications as something he doesn’t need to read.  Zzzzzzz.

Content and visuals must be new, even if the topic isn’t.

That wonderful poster graphic for the gala is only News once.  Each subsequent pitch must be based on a different facet, use a different (or variation of) visual interest, and be just as “new” as the first one.

With a newsletter, you never know if the reader received the prior issue or took the time to read it.  You want the reader to feel the excitement of the event, even if he’s already bought his ticket.

Give yourself a fresh chance to make the sell each time.

It takes more work to freshen the news every time, but it’s worth it.  Imagine if you opened next Sunday’s paper and saw the same headline you’d seen the week before.  You’d either think you were losing your mind or you’d think “I don’t really need to renew this subscription.”


A Call to Action They Can’t Ignore

Tell the donor what action to take, when, how, and why!  Especially in today’s world of short attention spans, dominance of quick web communications, and preponderance of urgency, you need an appeal that is hard to ignore.  Some pointers:

 Call to action must be prominent, in a place and in font or colors where it can’t be missed. (Remember most readers look only at the first paragraph and the postscript.)

 Identify the specific action: Click the Donate button, write your check, call to volunteer, etc. 

 The action must be feasible for the donor to accomplish now, before he sets the letter aside.

 Visualize the reader taking that action.  If you can’t visualize it (“raising awareness”), your reader won’t either.

People want to make a difference.  If you’re not telling them how to make an immediate difference, you’re not hitting the right buttons.  An appeal letter isn’t meant to convince people of the long-term accomplishments of your organization; it’s meant to spur them to immediate action.

Compelling Story-Telling

Here’s a beautiful example of using story-telling as an effective appeal:

Ngan’s parents were poor rice farmers, struggling to survive. When they saw her cleft lip and cleft palate for the first time, they thought she’d been cursed. Neighbors pitied her. Other children were afraid to look at her.

Four short sentences, at the beginning,  compelling content, emotional, visual.

Generous friends like you enabled us to give Ngan the surgery she needed–and save her from shame and rejection. She now has a terrific smile and a bright future ahead. Such a transformation seems miraculous! But we cannot rest.

“You” (donor) focus, complimentary, resolution of problem stated in first paragraph, hopeful, visual. Switches to “we” (moves donor to his part in all of this).

We want to go to more places and help more children. We want to continue to train local doctors and nurses to carry on the work, and establish more care centers in our partner countries, so surgeries can continue year-round.

States the goal in human terms, mostly visual.

We have medical teams who volunteer their time standing by. Now we need your help. Any gift amount will help give a little one like Ngan a new smile and a new life.

How you can join other volunteers to make a difference, visual.

And for as little as $240, you can help pay for a surgery for a child who’s waiting now. That’s one life changed, entirely because of you.

The difference the donor can make, visual.

Thank you in advance for helping us work toward changing the lives of children one smile at a time.

 Appreciation and reinforcement of the difference donor can make.

There’s not a lot more for me to say. All this in 197 words. Imagine a photo or two, the logo identifying the sponsoring organization, and an action-oriented response device. Do you think this is more effective than the ponderous two-pager? Can you top this?

Online Giving to the Fore

It’s happening.  “Online giving is now a donor’s preferred method of giving,” for the first time, according to Grizzard’s 2014 DonorGraphics Study (Grizzard Communications, Omnicom Group Inc.)

However, many donors are prompted to give online by a direct mail piece.  Grizzard notes that “as much of 70 percent of your online and white-mail giving. . .  is coming from a donor who received a direct-mail piece within the previous 30 days.”

Time to integrate your direct-mail and online solicitations (and responses) to reinforce this multi-channel interest.  Donors who respond through more than one channel typically give a larger amount over five years than donors who work through only one channel.  Add to that, the Boomer’s affinity to online giving.  The net result is that your best strategy to take advantage of this new swing in giving methods is to make sure that your two approaches work well together.

            Although the copy will differ, the message should be the same.

            Keywords should carry over between the two.

            Graphics should have a relationship to one another.

And, though you’ll respond through the medium in which the donor gave, make a plan to cross-promote to this donor within the next month!

Engage, Engage, Engage

Ever wonder why your local newspaper announces 20 or more fundraising events each week?  Surely there can’t be an endless of supply of people eager to show up on Saturday for a dog wash, a rubber duckie race, —

But, yes, in fact there are!

It doesn’t take a lot of research to see that: People want to be engaged.  Especially people under 50. Perhaps philanthropy has changed from the days of formal teas and peer soliciting peer.

It’s always been important to communicate with your donors.  Today it’s critical to engage them.  Give them a live experience connecting with your organization.  As you have probably seen for yourself, participating in an activity involving your organization, your mission, and your clients has a much higher impact in creating involvement than sending a check or clicking a Donate button.

Some examples:

            5K races, bowlathons, tournaments

            Dog washes and dog parks

            Demonstrations at the State Capitol

            United Way Cleanup Day

            Helping with summer camp

            Testing water samples or counting birds

            Coach a team or read to clients

Why do this?  Because when you take a step to involve the donor (especially a new donor) live, these are the connections you are making;

             The donor/volunteer:

                      “Feels” the nature of your work and the good you are doing; and feels a part of it.

                        Associates helping you with a pleasurable “belonging” experience

                        Meets like-minded others

                         Fulfills his need to do meaningful work

                         Feels that you responded personally and positively to his gift; you need him.

The best of these events are those closely related to your mission (painting the homeless center, cleaning up the stream, taking a group bus to the capitol to show support). 

This kind of event may not be your favorite thing to organize.  But if you look around and brainstorm, you may find a volunteer who will be excited to launch this for you.

 No more teas.  Today’s fundraising calls for an ever-changing landscape of activities to attract donors!





Forgotten Constituents!

So much of our focus is on our donors, don’t forget those internal stakeholders!  Special attention should be given to those whose support makes our work possible.  You probably do have a plan for nurturing your Board each year. But do you have nurture plans for your staff, volunteers, and clients?


Why do you need to add this assignment to your already long list? What are the benefits?

                Draw these valuable assets closer to you—friendmaking

                Help them feel a part of your mission—ownership

                Increase their abilities (and inclinations) to spread the word of what you’re doing and how great an organization you are.

How do you do this?

                First identify these stakeholders

                Ask them what they want from your organization.  (Stop giving them what You want them to know; meet Their needs/wishes.)  You’ll need to use separate efforts to survey each group, maybe with personal interviews, small group meetings.  You’re not likely to get useful information by handing out a written survey.

                Don’t patronize these valuable individuals.  Although these groups aren’t usually at the top of our cultivation lists, perhaps they should be.  They have already expressed a very tangible interest in your mission; they may be pretty knowledgeable about what you do; and they have reason to be involved in your ongoing success.

Now that you know what they want, find a way to provide it, put it on your annual calendar, and just do it!

Be more than a paycheck to your staff.

Get to know volunteers personally, developing their ability to spread the word for you.

Although we don’t often think of clients as potential donors, that may be a mistake.  Low-income donors generally give a larger percent of their income than other donors.  Give them the opportunity to participate in the work of your organization, not just the benefits.  Let them share in the ownership. (Think of Habitat for Humanity Homes.)  They may also be able to add connections related to your mission—professionals, related organizations, etc.

These stakeholders are too valuable an asset to neglect!



Oh, no! Not another meeting!

So the Chairman of the Gala Committee does a wonderful job, but her meetings are boring, consist of endless reports, and don’t leave the right people with the information they need. 

Not your problem?  Of course it is! The meeting attendees are all, if not your donors, then your best prospects.  She may be leading the meeting, but you stand to lose the very people you’re working so hard to attract.

 “I can’t tell Sally how to run her meeting,” you say.  Well, you’d better think again.  (Maybe you don’t “tell” her, you show her.)  There are tactful ways to encourage a volunteer to do a better job.

Here are some tips to  make meetings (from the Board on down) work for you in attracting and keeping the friends of your organization:

 Make sure there’s an agenda in advance, and that you stick pretty close to it.  This may mean meeting with the chair ahead of time—well worth your effort. The new member can plan her time and reports; your meeting won’t throw a wrench in her day.

 Encourage members to report on a regular basis and in a useful way.  In advance, provide them with samples of good reports, model the length of time spent giving the report, show how the interlocking of reports creates a whole picture of the project and its progress.

 No “downers.”  Don’t let negative talk go on in the meeting; you don’t want to turn off a first-time attendee.

 “Uppers.”  At each meeting, plan some accomplishment to report—latest results from last year, or new donors/prospects joining through the project, or latest news from elsewhere in your organization.

 Once again, it’s not about you!  It’s about making time spent with your organization truly a benefit to the recipient. What excites the attendees sends the message that the organization really wants their involvement, values the attendees’ contributions, is willing to put forth the effort to make their participation worthwhile, does things professionally, and knows how to make projects successful.

 When volunteers have raised their hands to help you, make it pleasant for them.  They might resign on for the next project as well!