It’s time to stop… the donor pyramid

All pyramids are lies.They have a dishonest scheme named after them.  They will not keep your razor blades sharp or apples fresh.  They messed up the four food groups.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs isn’t really true (in the sense that there are fundamental needs, but there isn’t a hierarchy).  Even the Egyptian pyramids were really built by aliens.  I know that last one is true because I saw it on the History Channel and you can’t have lies in history.

They have a dishonest scheme named after them.  They will not keep your razor blades sharp or apples fresh.  They messed up the four food groups.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs isn’t really true (in the sense that there are fundamental needs, but there isn’t a hierarchy).  Even the Egyptian pyramids were really built by aliens.  I know that last one is true because I saw it on the History Channel and you can’t have lies in history.


It’s time to give up the donor pyramid as yet another three-dimensional-triangle lie, something that desperate presenters shove into PowerPoint slides to give the illusion of intelligence.  (See also: clipart of stick figures doing things, photos of people shaking hands, any time arrows make a circle.)

So let’s see and know the enemy:


It looks innocent enough.  But do not be drawn in by its tetrahedral lies.  These include, but are not limited to:

Steady steps up the pyramid.  Some illustrations even have a person climbing up the side of the donor pyramid like Yodeling Guy from The Price Is Right (I’m sure Yodeling Guy has a canonical name and such, but hopefully the description suffices).  In reality, steps are so frequently skipped as to render the metaphor useless.  Think of the little old lady who gave your organization $10 each year at Christmas, then left you a bequest of $400,000.  She skipped all of the steps.  You didn’t even try to get her to be a monthly donor, because your modeling indicated that she probably refers to going online as “The Google.”  And major donor?  Fuhgeddaboutit.  $10 per year.  She was probably the last person you were going to ask.  Literally, the last person.

I will bet the contents of my wallet (two dollars cash and seven receipts from my trip to DMA) that this experience happens more often than someone stopping at every step of the so-called donor pyramid.  At the point that the worst-case scenario for your metaphor is more common than your best-case, you have a metaphor problem.

More mundanely, it’s probably counterproductive to think that you are moving someone up one step at a time.  Take a look at monthly givers versus major givers.  Yes, you are probably going to invite your monthly donors to make major givers.  But if someone is giving you a thousand dollars through the mail and comes in high on wealth screening and affinity, you are going to start personal cultivation with that person (while not removing them from direct marketing, because you are not an idiot).  That will come at the expense of, and rightly so, an invitation to, and stop off in, monthly donor land.

The donor experience pinnacle is death.  If this is true for your organization, take a good long look at your donor relations processes.

Progress.  The donor pyramid has never heard of a lapsed donor.  When the donor pyramid thinks someone is about to say “lapsed donor,” it sticks its fingers in its ears* and says “lalalalalalalalalala” like a recalcitrant seven-year-old.**  The idea that you would have to get a donor back doesn’t occur to this pyramid – its donors are too busy ascending.

Meanwhile, in reality, lapsed donors are valuable.  They are less valuable than multi-donors, but more valuable than person-off-the-street.  But they don’t fit into the pyramid power’s progress.  So they are left aside.

This last point also shines the way to the better analogy: the donor flowchart.  It isn’t as aesthetically pleasing, but it is true.  In being true, it also helps us better conceptualize our process.  We need to differentiate major donor versus monthly donor asks.  We need to try to get our lapsing donors back.  And death is not the only way the donor story ends.

So congratulations, donor pyramid.  You make our list of Things to Stop Doing.  Now, if someone asks where your donor pyramid slide is, let them know that aliens took it.  After all, aliens are far more plausible than the pyramid-y version of the donor story.

* Yes, in this analogy, pyramids have fingers and ears.

** This author has a seven-year-old and knows of what he speaks.

It’s time to stop… the donor pyramid

A direct marketing bridge to… planned giving

If you look at a planned giving consultant’s guide to how to approach planned giving, direct marketing will be a significant part of it.  In fact, they will want to take over the entirety of your direct marketing program.

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t let them, for the same reason your three-year-old does not get to pick what s/he eats.

However, there are intelligent ways to use your direct marketing savvy to cultivate planned giving prospects.

In order to market your planned giving society, you need to create your planned giving society (contrary to popular belief, my master’s is in marketing, not the obvious).  That is to say, you need to give your society a name (even if it’s as simple as the [Your Organization Name Here] Legacy Society) and let people know what will happen when they join by letting you know they have named you for a bequest.

In addition to creating the society, you need to create the systems to handle inbound queries by phone, mail, or email.  The person or people that help with this need not have legal training – in fact, it will likely help you avoid acting like a lawyer if you are not one – but should have a knowledge of different types of instruments for giving.  At its simplest (which can you shoot for if you are just starting up your planned giving program), you can start with just wills/bequests, of which there are few variations:

  • A fixed amount of money
  • A percentage of an estate
  • A fixed amount of money after X is taken care of (X can be family, friends, other charities, etc.)
  • A percentage of an estate after X

Pretty simple; don’t let the lawyers complicate it.  This can be a part where a direct marketer can help.  We are used to boiling things down to a low reading level and making abstruse concepts understandable (for example, by not using the word “abstruse”).  Research shows that complicated words like “charitable remainder trusts” and “bequests” can scare people away when we really mean “making a will.”

The systems you create should be fairly simple as well.  You should have a response system for whatever means they contact you for people who are considering a planned gift and one for people who have told you they have designated one to be made.  For the latter group, you should show them the love – donor newsletter, customized copy in mail and email pieces, recognition and regular thank you’s.  You want these donors to have guilt if they choose to remove you from their will.

Once you have your inbound systems in place, it’s time to work to attract planned giving donors.  You are looking for similar quality here as we talked about for major givers.  In fact, planned giving is a common fallback from a major gift ask (“I realize you may not be in a position to make that gift of eleventy billion now; would you consider us in your will?”).  To summarize for those who have not memorized the canon of this blog, you are looking for loyal, long-term donors, or those who have demonstrated a deep passion in other ways (e.g., volunteering, a large initial acquisition gift).

And you are looking for people who are older.  Planned giving experts will tell you that you should start with people in their 40s and 50s, because these are the people who are most likely to be putting together their first will or thinking seriously about this.

This may be true.  But there’s not one single other investment you can make at your nonprofit where you will say “now, all we have to do is wait 30-40 years and we’ll start to see if this investment paid off.”  Nor should there be.  For one, you lack effective testing data (reporting of leaving in a will is only a middling indicator of actually leaving in a will); for another, the time value of money has eroded so much over that time as to be negligible.

And, as a fundraiser, not one single person will pat you on the back for the bequest in 2058 that you set up with your marketing today.

So I would suggest a much older age selection for your planned giving prospects.

Then, planned giving experts will tell you to mail and call this entire file.  Also, car donation experts will tell you to mail and call your entire file about donating your car.  Everyone wants you to spend your money on their thing.  I haven’t seen anyone advocate a telemarketing campaign to get people to use text to donate, but I’m sure I will.

Instead, save your money by piggybacking on pieces you are already doing.  Donor newsletters are a great place to put planned giving information because those are the loyal donors who are most likely to participate.  Similarly, you can insert a planned giving buckslip into your acknowledgment envelopes for people who are in your target audience much cheaper than you can for a single mailing.

Now take the money you saved and run another donor acquisition campaign.  You’ll do more for planned giving by having a larger file with better donors than you will having a one-off planned giving campaign.

So those are bits of the direct marketers guide to planned giving.  Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up the week with the bridge to monthly giving.

A direct marketing bridge to… planned giving