The donor pyramid is no panacea

Published by Ken Burnett on

But claimed demise of fundraising stalwart is ‘greatly exaggerated’.

The opening several weeks of 2010 have seen all sorts of opinions bandied about the blogosphere by the fundraising chattering classes. The focus of their concerns this time has been the merits, or otherwise, of that fine institution, our old friend the donor pyramid.

The exquisite and much admired Agitator has even descended into the fray, running a series of increasingly sensationalised editorials under the scandal-mongering headline, The Donor Pyramid Lie.


Way back in 1992 the donor pyramid and its rivals were hotly debated whenever and wherever fundraisers congregated. But is it still relevant, today? The page above is from the first edition of Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising.

Politely, Tom Belford there has granted this humble columnist the last word (see The Agitator, and below), though I have no doubt that others will sneak in subsequent opinions by the back door that is their ‘comments’ option. Good, say I, as it’s an issue that never tires me. And many others, I’m sure.

For in its various transformations the donor pyramid is a subject that excites hot passions, on all sides of the debate.

The pyramid does indeed have much to answer for. Down through the ages fundraisers have unfailingly taken umbrage at precocious donors who have had the temerity to cock a snook at our sacred triangle. Donors who, without so much as a ‘May I?’ or, ‘By your leave’ insist upon sliding straight in at the level of major donor. Or, who shamelessly leapfrog directly onto the legacy platform, without having properly served their time ascending our pyramid with the rest of the donating public, as we have decreed that they should, in the prescribed, pre-ordained and time honoured sequence. And with no recourse possible, from our perspective, as they are then truly beyond the pale.

To quote the blessed George Smith, how dare they? How dare they?

To add to this, the learned John Rodd, a man who knows data in all its formats and complexities, told me recently that he has calculated the relative values of donors as they move up and down the slope (we should be grateful) and the resulting shape is not even close to triangular. Which, I think, proves the point that our illustrious pyramid is nothing more than what it always has been: a convenient way of illustrating the direction we’d like to imagine most of our donor relationships will follow – with or without our interference.

Who are we to cry, ‘Outrage!’, if they then decide to do things differently? Fortunately for fundraisers the magic of averages dictates that most won’t. So these formulaic shapes, while not infallible, are still valid and valuable. Eighteen years ago when describing the evolutions, or mutations, illustrated opposite I was merely trying to broaden the debate, partly to help fundraisers of course, but mainly I confess because I find fundraisers reactions to and expectations from the pyramid so enjoyable.

I’m sure future fundraisers will continue to evolve improved versions too. (I’d originally thought to predict some of these in this article and was going to title the piece Things of Shapes to Come, but decided against it.)

The donor dodecahedron (in development)

I love the donor pyramid, but it’s not a panacea. What is most significant and serious for our profession now is that the nature of our relationship with donors is certainly changing, perhaps irrevocably, perhaps not positively. Alas, whatever we do or don’t do about this, it probably won’t be anything triangular, or any other shape for that matter, that will point us in the right direction to anticipate or even interpret our donors’ changing needs. Even if we could conceive the donor dodecahedron (above) it was always unlikely that a single geometric construct would solve all our problems.

So while there’s much merit in the continuing efforts of Tony Elischer (Agitator 26/01/10) and others to redefine and enhance the pyramid, whatever we do to it won’t help us to provide our donors with a more fulfilling experience or to get half decent at things like giving brilliant feedback and saying thank you and welcome properly. These are the things we really need to refine and improve if we want to increase engagement and income from donors.

Nevertheless, it would be premature to lament the faithful old pyramid’s passing, for it still has its uses, if only for fundraisers who know precisely what they should do with it.

Anyway, you’ll see, opposite, the ‘last word’ that the people at The Agitator allowed me. I should point out though that I was, obviously, attempting to be ironic in this observation. As everyone well knows, Og the Benevolent was dispensing his wisdom in 563 AD, not BC.


This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


John Farley · March 24, 2014 at 18:12

“The opening several weeks of 2010”? So how much of this is still relevant in 2014, or is it just a typo?

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · March 24, 2014 at 19:54

    “This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.”

    Ken Burnett · March 24, 2014 at 21:23

    Thanks John. Though, as Reinier says, these pieces are recycled, i would still prefer some infallible editorial overseer to adjust such things, so as to avoid inadvertently putting anyone off. More amazingly though, sometimes some things even as ancient as 2010 can still be relevant for fundraisers. Best, Ken.

Claire Axelrad · March 25, 2014 at 00:12

I do find the pyramid a bit out of step with our digital world. It’s just not that neat and orderly. Folks don’t climb to the top of a pyramid so much as they swoop in and out — it’s more (to my mind) like a vortex. Each interaction has a certain amount of energy; some more than others. But we can’t continue to make the journey towards deep engagement and investment with us all about money. Because folks are finding us and interacting with us online long before we ask them to make a gift. It’s an outside/in world today, and we can’t control it. We can, however, guide folks towards engagement that is relevant and meaningful to them. We do this by being active in social networks, listening, responding, engaging and helping folks feel part of a community. Once they feel like they already belong, then we can raise them up — not to the top of a pyramid but to the attainment of their own dreams and visions.

Feel free to check out my article on “Why We Stopped Building Pyramids” http://www.clairification.com/2013/10/29/why-we-stopped-building-pyramids-what-nonprofits-can-learn/. Great discussion!

    Ken Burnett · March 25, 2014 at 23:56

    Hi Claire,

    I so agree, (even though I’m not sure that the donor world is quite yet entirely digital). The pyramid always was only a guide at best and, possibly, a bit misleading at worst. And I applaud your statement that fundraising isn’t about money. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s about inspiring people to believe that they can make a difference, and then helping them to make it. That, indeed, is more about realising dreams than about any artificial structure based, as it is, on the value of most recent gifts from some largely mythical segments . So, hear hear. But, still, the pyramid does have its uses.
    Best, Ken

James · March 25, 2014 at 09:31

I can’t remember which I saw last – a donor pyramid or a brand onion!

Tracey Cummins · May 1, 2014 at 10:11

The donor pyramid is at least a start for those new to fundraising. Understanding the importance of just to get out their recruit, network and most of all make friends, digitally too! The exciting bit is going along on a path and suddenly being surprised by something nice hitting you from the side. If you hadn’t taken that path then may be it wouldn’t have happened. Just received a 1/4 million donation from someone not on our database but had seen our newsletter.

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