Retire the donor pyramid? Replace it with a vortex? What’s a fundraiser to do?

Goodbye pyramid. Hello vortex.

If you are a fundraiser, you’ve probably been taught that icon of fundraising, the donor pyramid.

The pyramid has been traced back to the 1960s work of Robert and Joan Blum and promulgated in many a fundraising training and textbook.

The idea of the pyramid or ladder is that people enter at the bottom, with the least amount of engagement and giving.

Our task as fundraisers is to move them up the ladder through more intensive engagement to higher levels of involvement and giving.

For fundraisers (and even for advocacy types) I urge you to read The Permanent Disruption of Social Media, in the Winter 2013 edition of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The authors’ premise is that in a world of social media, the old pyramid or ladder metaphor of donor engagement isn’t relevant any more. (If it ever worked at all. I’ve seen reports that direct mail donors tend to stay at the level of giving they entered at. If they stay at all.)

Not that it’s a bad idea to deepen donor engagement and giving.

But the old model implied a somewhat orderly process of communications and solicitations tied to giving frequency and levels. The bigger your gift, the more valuable you are, the more worthy of personalized attention.

The authors accuse this approach of being a one way street, from organization to donor, that ignores the new reality of influence.

They point to their survey findings:

“39 percent of Americans responded that they’re motivated to get involved with causes that have affected someone they know, and 36 percent said they’re motivated by it being an important cause to family and friends.

“Both were among the top five responses, and both outweighed factors like having the time or money to get involved or feeling an urgency to help those in need.”

While this doesn’t seem a shockingly new finding to those of us who have been around for a while, the disruption of social media is to significantly amplify the role and reach of those influencers.

In the past, a donor might mention a cause they care about to a few of their friends.

Today, any person, donor or not, can shout about your cause to hundreds of their friends and followers using social media such as Facebook or Twitter – and have their shouts repeated across those networks.

The authors’ suggest that fundraisers can’t simply focus their attention on those donors who seem ripe for moving up the ladder. We also need to better understand the new role of these influencers on current donors, volunteers and potential new supporters.

Create a new model of donor engagement.

According to the authors, any new model of engagement:

  • “Allows for a donor to be engaged at different entry points and to move easily between them during the life cycle of engagement
  • “Has no fixed end point for a donor’s engagement
  • “Allows for the donor-engagement footprint to expand or contract in ways that are unique to and driven by the individual donor
  • “Places the donor’s needs—not the organization’s—at the center of the engagement
  • “Accounts for the influence of other people on the strength of the donor-organization relationship”

The authors are suggesting a new visual, the vortex, to replace the ladder and pyramid.

This approach calls out for a pretty sophisticated communications and engagement strategy, much more than just adding a few event posts to Twitter or FaceBook.

And it also suggests the need for getting to know those followers and friends much better, even if they aren’t donors.

What’s the small shop fundraiser to do?

You probably already have a pretty tough time keeping up with the supporters you already have.

Now, more than ever, constituent engagement can’t be the job solely of the development staff. That point was also underscored by the recent report Underdeveloped, which highlighted the need to develop a culture of philanthropy that pervades your organization.

You can’t just start assigning tasks and expect action.

I’d suggest you have a heart to heart with your executive director. Encourage him or her to make this article (along with Underdeveloped) must reading in your organization – not only for development staff, but all the way across the organization and into the board of directors.

Don’t read just to read. Use these articles as the topic for a deep dive with all of the audiences mentioned above.  Here a few questions to chew on:

  • What does this mean to the way we do business?
  • What are we doing now that we can amplify?
  • Where are the opportunities in what we are currently doing?
  • What do we need to do differently?
  • What can I do personally, what can we do together (department, committee, etc)?
  • What do I need to be effective in this new role that I’ve agreed to take on?

While you are making this happen at a bigger scale across your organization, don’t wait to start this process with your development staff.

But still be strategic

I’m not at all suggesting that you should drop everything and replace it with  tweeting and posting on Facebook. That would completely miss the key points of the article (go back and read those survey findings on who people do connect).

Whatever you do, your approach needs to be targeted, strategic, delivering the best return on investment and the right fit for your capacity as an organization.

Imagine the possibilities if you think of your people power as bigger than just your fundraisers.

Deepening donor engagement is a survival and growth strategy for any nonprofit. Because retention rates are already lousy. And because predictions for the future are that donors will continue to winnow down the causes they support.

P.S. I’d be very, very interested in hearing from you about what happened when you held those conversations.

P. P.S. And if you need help holding those conversations, give us a shout.

Other reading:

Troubling findings on the state of fundraising

Nonprofit marketing from the inside out

If donors knew what others gave, would they give more?

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