R.I.P. Donor Pyramid?
Why do we always think of donors with pyramids? The pyramids were built in Egypt. On the backs of slaves. It took a very, very long time. The cost, in human terms, was untenable and unsustainable.
That’s why you don’t see many pyramids being built these days.
Except in nonprofits, where building the donor pyramid is still the holy grail. Get ’em in. Move ’em up. Acquire through direct mail. Convert to monthly donor or sustainer. Acquire through events. Convert to mail. Up, up, up … to the pinnacle of major and planned gifts!
Except for one tiny thing.
It doesn’t work. Pyramid building is so 2630 BCE. Nobody’s got 100,000 workers (aka direct-mail donors) building a solid pyramid anymore. Many so-called pyramids really look like hourglasses. Or upside-down pyramids. Or plateaus. Even the pyramid-shaped ones are resting on shaky foundations of donors who move in and out, in and out — seven out of 10 leave — making the “foundation” more like a river than a solid, secure slab of mortar. The days of the donor pyramid model are gone!
Digital toppled the donor pyramid. Actually, it crumbled it … slowly, surely … until there was nothing left but an empty frame. A triangle on paper. The donors no longer fit inside of it. R.I.P. donor pyramid. You had a good run.
The donor pyramid was a great model for linear thinkers like me. It was neat and orderly. Engage folks from the bottom up, level by level, one step at a time. It was stable. Or so we thought, until research from Adrian Sargeant, the Hartsook Chair in Fundraising at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (“Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value”) and Cygnus Applied Research’s Penelope Burk (“Donor-Centered Fundraising”) showed we were losing up to 70 percent of our donors before they ever moved up the ladder.
Here’s the problem: Pyramids are forced. They’re where people go to die (yes, remember the pyramids were built as tombs). Why are we forcing people up to the top? Just to get them there and hope they’ll expire so we can get their planned gifts? That sounds like the antithesis of a donor-centric strategy. It sounds totally self-centered — kind of like a pharaoh!
So what’s the solution?
Instead, what about a model that’s free, active and filled with room to breathe? One that focuses not just on the strength of the dollars given, but on the love and engagement freely offered? One driven not by fundraising, but by philanthropy (i.e., “love of human kind”)? One fueled not by singular transactions, but by transformative interactions that lead to deep, lasting relationships?
I’m thinking of a vortex — an energized circle. Everyone is equal in a circle; just at times some folks have more energy than others. People move in and out, giving and getting, as the time and spirit move them.
In the energized circle/vortex model, donors are not categorized solely by their money. They’re people, first and foremost. Sometimes, when things are going well for them, they become donor-investors helping other people. Sometimes, when other things in life take precedence, they may become recipients of philanthropy.
I’ve known an awful lot of people who at one time were charity beneficiaries and then went on to become philanthropists. Sadly, the reverse is true as well. But that’s what the circle — the circle of life — is all about. The vortex enables folks to freely enter and exit from various points on the circle. Here are some things to consider about the nature of the new model:
1. There’s no fixed entry or end point. The vortex continues to swirl. It’s ongoing, rather than start and stop. People may swoop in with a shared tweet, acting as your ambassador. They may jump in with a peer-to-peer crowdfunding initiative, acting as your fundraiser. They may dance around on Facebook or Google+ trying to get a petition signed, acting as your advocate. They may make a small online special appeal gift … attend an event … purchase an auction item … take a tour … or sit down with your executive director and end up making a significant donor investment.
2. All prospects and donors are similar points of energy on your circling vortex. As the energy builds up, some are swooped toward the center of the vortex and stay there. They’re the ones whose energy (and values) match yours most closely. They’re the ones where the chemical reaction (or, as Yoda might say, “the force”) is so strong and the energizing experience of the circle (your community, your family) is so potent that they simply can’t resist you. These become your hard core of supporters — the ones you continue to supply with lots of energy.
3. But everyone else gets energy too. The folks engaging with you online are just as important as offline. They must be responded to so the energy keeps flowing. Some of these folks have so much energy themselves that they’ll spread your message like wildfire — if you let them. So, let them. Play with them. Invigorate them. Catalyze them. Give them breathing room — rather than trying to force them into rungs on a ladder, points in a funnel or levels on a pyramid.
4. Inbound marketing and social media fuel your vortex. Electronic communications — social media, mobile, email, crowdfunding, online donating — have permanently disrupted the traditional donor-engagement process. People get information online, network online, make decisions online.
5. Entry points are increasingly complex. Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, texting — there’s a lot for your typical nonprofit to wrap its arms around. Yet wrap you must. There’s no going backward. Change is change. You adapt or die.
This is not something fundraisers should leave solely in the hands of marketing staff. I’ve been a broken record for years on the essential need to integrate marketing and fundraising. It’s never been as crystal clear why this is important since the explosion of digital. Your donors only know one organization. And, increasingly, they know what they see about you online.
Embrace social media fully. Smart nonprofits have always known to let donors know they’re valued for more than their money. The vortex model makes this happen. Influencers, advocates and ambassadors are valued contributors — and sometimes they influence donations well beyond what they themselves are able to contribute.
If you can provide value to prospects who use social media (the lion’s share), and make it snappy, they’ll be all over you like a cheap suit (yes, even those major donors who tend to wear expensive suits). Give folks what they want and you’ll be amazed at the results. And these days a lot of folks — across age and income ranges — want quick, real-time connections via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, G+ and even texts. You’ve got to meet them where they are.
Stop thinking outbound
You’ll know you’ve got the wrong fuel for your vortex if you’re always asking these types of questions:
- What’s going on in the organization we can push to our mailing list?
- What do we have to tell them?
- What can they do for us (e.g., buy a ticket, make a donation)?
Those things aren’t bad, per se, but they’re not likely to get you a long-term supporter relationship. They’re too much you looking in a mirror and admiring yourself. If you don’t start looking out a window to see what your supporters care about, you’ll get what drives most nonprofit marketers — a one-time transaction you can check off your list. Done.
But you shouldn’t be done! You’re never done in the vortex model. You’re not after mere actions. You’re after interactions. That’s what builds up your energy. Every entry point into the vortex offers a pathway to deeper engagement.
Accept the fact this is a nonlinear, nonorderly, downright messy process. Folks can interact with you in multiple ways. They aren’t confined to a single level. Jennifer Wayman at Ogilvy Public Relations Washington calls this a “surround sound” experience — one that uses various channels in people’s everyday lives and increases opportunities to both introduce and reinforce messages. The only constant is energy, which ebbs and flows. The vortex model:
- Allows your donor to be engaged at different entry points and move easily between them during the engagement life cycle.
- Has no fixed end point for your donor’s engagement.
- Allows for your donor’s engagement footprint to expand or contract in ways that are unique to and driven by the individual donor.
- Places your donor’s needs — not your organization’s — at the center of the engagement.
Here are some ways to adopt the vortex model:
1. Begin by changing the way you’ve traditionally done fundraising and marketing. In silos. In segments. In “low touch” at the bottom and “high touch” at the top strategies. Boundaries are blurring. You’ve got to integrate all online and offline communications functions across your entire organization.
Social media makes it possible to provide folks with continuous energy. And it enables them to respond in kind. Then you respond back, and so forth. This means putting it on everyone’s plate, then hiring or designating a manager to coordinate your efforts. Speak to donors where they’re most comfortable; shape calls to action to maximize their engagement and impact. Continue to come up with asks throughout the year — not just for money, but for energy, influence and impact. Have periodic trainings for all staffers so they can learn your messaging and how to engage folks online.
2. Reimagine the concept of donor “lifetime value.” It’s no longer simply a combination of average gifts, future capacity and attrition rates. Now it must encompass factors such as the size of a person’s network and her propensity to use that network. In other words, the “connectors,” “mavens” and “salesmen” of whom Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “The Tipping Point” become very desirable constituents.
Stuffing donors into a pyramid model leads to a culture of building relationships only with the folks at the top. A lot of potential is missed. It’s always been thus, but the digital revolution has shined a beacon on this because it’s so much more evident who your influencers are. You didn’t know when your $25 donor was telling 100 of her friends to give to you, so you didn’t lavish attention on her. Today, you can see via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, G+, YouTube shares, Yelp reviews and comments on your blog whom your real fans are. Recruit them!
3. Make harnessing the power of potential influencers a primary goal. Continue to ask for gifts, of course. Simply also ask supporters to share your email appeals with their personal networks and post information about your organization’s efforts on social media. These tasks require minimal effort on the part of your supporter but can reap tremendous benefits by (1) introducing you to a broader constituency and (2) making your supporter feel she’s having added impact. It’s a win-win.
When you rank the potential forces on a donor’s decision to give, family, friends and peers rank higher than anything else. According to a survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, 39 percent of Americans get involved with causes because they’ve affected someone they know; 36 percent are motivated when it’s an important cause to family and friends. These reasons for involvement far outweigh having time or money, or feeling an urgency to help people in need.
4. Stop treating your supporters — any of them — like bottom feeders. No one is at the bottom of anything if they support your cause. They’re the “tops” in my book! Stop forcing them to build your pyramid. Stop forcing folks to go where you think they should be. People who make repeated small gifts are just as likely to leave bequests as those you force up to the top of your pyramid. Ditto those who engage with you actively online.
The pathway into the digital future is not going to be a linear journey up a pyramid. Make your circle a strong, compelling magnet. Clarify your mission. Simplify your case for support. Stop trying so hard to explain what you do. Show people. Use images. Tell your best emotional stories. This will invigorate your circle.
The best way to work the donor vortex is actively. Keep compelling content flowing. Build yourself a content calendar, and put someone in charge of donor-centered communications. Watch the circle begin to spin and build momentum. The energy will do the work for you. Just concentrate on being the magnet — and rotating.
Note: This post was inspired by the brilliant work of Julie Dixon and Denise Keyes, whose winter 2013 article “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media” in Stanford Social Innovation Review nicely sums up the benefits of the vortex model. I encourage you to read it.
Claire Axelrad is a fundraising and marketing consultant, and author of the Clairification blog. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CharityClairity
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.