Is the Donor Pyramid a Thing of the Past?

The simple answer is yes.

If you haven’t heard already, the donor pyramid that many of us have come to know, has changed—and perhaps is even dead. (R.I.P.)

Now, if that’s the case, what kind of journey are donors experiencing today? And, more importantly, how do we engage them?

First, let’s cover why the donor pyramid has transformed.


In the past, fundraisers and their organizations spent infinite hours and dollars building annual giving programs to amass a broad—yet relatively shallow—base of transactional donors. This base was filled with donors that had varying levels of commitment to the organization and its mission.

Over time, and with countless mailings, nonprofits would work at moving donors up the pyramid (utilizing tools like moves management and other fundraising practices). The goal: Transition first-time donors to consistent donors, major donors, lead donors and ultimately the aspirational planned gift donor.

Donor-pyramid 1

The donor journey was a straightforward, step-by-step process… Or so we thought.

Over the past 15+ years fundraisers have been questioning the efficacy, and validity, of the traditional donor pyramid with today’s donor and their expectations. These new expectations, as well as changes in technology and donor demographics, dictate how and when donors engage with organizations.

While there are still some instances of donors taking the traditional pyramid path, more and more donors are coming into contact with your organization at a variety of points in their giving life cycle.

So, is it fair to say a donor’s giving no longer culminates in a planned gift?

Yes and no. Increasingly, donor pyramids are being questioned. It’s true: Giving loyalty and demonstrated capacity still give fundraisers a place to start when focusing on planned givers. However, as the donor’s behavior, journey and even decision-making process evolve, fundraisers need to evolve with it.

Enter the donor vortex!


Claire Axelrad spoke brilliantly about this in her 2013 blog post entitled Why We Stopped Building Pyramids: What Nonprofits Can Learn.

And she’s still spot on!

In this day and age, we must understand that donors can come into contact with fundraisers and organizations at many different points and during many different times in their lives.

Nonprofits are receiving planned gifts from donors who have never made an annual gift before—and sometimes are not even found in their database.

These donors come into contact with organizations through social media, influencers and advocates. And it’s vital that fundraisers are exploring these ways to connect with them.


“Go fishing where the fish are,” is a phrase I’ve long used. This saying is applicable in many situations, including the donor vortex. Fundraisers must be willing to communicate through the channels that their donors are using. Facebook, and social media as a whole, is a perfect example.

Depending on the size, scope and brand recognition of your organization, you may have many friends and followers that—while they may not be in your donor database—can be found within your social media network. Use these connections.


1. Donors can be “sucked in” anywhere, anytime. Vortexes never stop.

We are in the age of the self-directed consumer; that includes your donors. They decide what information they want, as well as how and when they want to consume it. (Not familiar with the self-directed consumer/donor? Learn more here.)

All of your channels must be at the top of their game, at all times. I know, that sounds like a lot of pressure. But really, it’s simple. Just make sure your channels are in place (applicable social media, planned giving website, email program, direct mail), and that you have a purposeful strategy outlined for donor engagement.

That Facebook post could be the first encounter a future planned giver has with your organization. Make it count. All it takes is one moment to make a prospect a forever supporter.

2. Calculating donor value isn’t cut-and-dry.

The golden rule: Treat all supporters equally—because they are all equal! You can’t, and should never, put a price tag on your donors’ advocacy.

This was one critical issue with the pyramid. None of your supporters are at the bottom of anything. Whether they are volunteering, donating or digitally/verbally promoting your mission—support is support.

Donors come in all shapes and sizes. To accommodate everyone, have a pleasant mix of hard and soft asks. As a fundraiser, you’ll never stop asking for that donation or planned gift. However, don’t forget to ask followers to retweet or share to advance your mission, too.

3. Stop putting social last—please.

I can’t stress this enough. Your nonprofit and its mission depend on it. Good, bad or indifferent, social isn’t going anywhere. Use it to your nonprofit’s advantage.

Remember, social media is a community. This needs to be a two-way communication channel. Engage and interact with your followers, just as you would with your offline community.

  • On Facebook: Create a post requesting for your supporters to comment why your organization means so much to them.
  • On Twitter: Ask for a retweet to share a story of the impact your nonprofit is creating.
  • On Instagram: Regularly check posts you’ve been tagged in and your nonprofit’s hashtag. Communicate with these advocates by commenting on their posts—encouraging them to continue sharing their experiences with your organization.

For more social dos and don’ts, see our Simple Guide to Improve Your Social Media.

Looking for even more ways to attract, educate and convert donors through your nonprofit’s digital marketing?

Take control of your digital presence and craft a digital marketing strategy that grows your donor base and increases your planned gifts. Discover how with Your Digital Marketing Handbook.



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5 thoughts on “Is the Donor Pyramid a Thing of the Past?

  1. […] This pyramid was a complex tool consisting of education, cultivation, motivation and stewardship techniques designed through time to move the prospect through various stages of donor engagement within the organization. Through an evolution of time, techniques and strategies, the basic pyramid has changed its functionality. According to Stelter, the donor pyramid is now a thing of the past. […]

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