The Donor Pyramid: A Structure for Success

July 26, 2021by Kara Steffen

The Donor Pyramid: A Structure for Success

When you’re building up support for your nonprofit organization, it’s vital to focus on creating a strong base.

Despite a fundraiser’s wildest fantasies, the chances of a generous benefactor knocking on your door with a seven-figure check are about as likely as winning the lottery. Most large donations come after years of hard work and donor cultivation. So where do you start?

Fundraising experts say, start at the bottom, lending new meaning to “base” of support. The “donor pyramid” is a tool that can help you conceptualize and build a strong development program.

Visualize the pyramids of ancient Egypt, spectacular structures reaching far into the sky. Just like ancients, you don’t start building a pyramid at the top and work your way down. You start by building a broad, strong base at the bottom and working your way up. The bottom of your donor pyramid is composed of many small dollar donors–those people who give $100 annually or contribute a small amount every month.

The next tier is composed of fewer people who give more: $1,000 – $10,000 annually, say, though this amount will vary based on your organization. Then at the very top, you have your major donors and bequest giving, which can often reach into six, seven, or more figures. These, however, represent a small fraction compared to the number of people at your base.

As you work to deepen your relationship with your donors and build those connections, some of them will move up the pyramid, becoming those mid- and top-tier level donors. In fact, the best predictor of a bequest gift is small, regular giving, not large one-time gifts, as you might expect. Research by nonprofit consultants reveal that most major donors start with a smaller “test” gift to an organization; because they’re new to you, they want to see how you steward them and how their investment is used before they contribute larger amounts.

Because of the way that wealth is concentrated in the United States, your small donor pool is likely to be your most demographically diverse. That’s why it’s important to know who your donors are: so you can segment and target messaging that resonates with them, and see which groups you are reaching most effectively. This group is also likely to be younger than your mid- and top-tier.

Cultivating a relationship with them now will build your pipeline for larger gifts in the future as they have more disposable income, ensuring that your organization will survive and thrive many years from now.

Kara Steffen

Kara Steffen is the founder and principal consultant of The Change Up Group. She posesses more than 12 years of leadership and consulting experience in the nonfproit sector.

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