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January 29, 2020

In Favor of the Campaign Pyramid

Occasionally I’ll hear or read about someone trying to eschew the classic donor pyramid in favor of a new metaphor. A funnel, circle, or some other analogy to explain how we organize our donors.

You’re familiar with the donor pyramid – it’s a framework in which there are lot of donors making small gifts at the base of the pyramid, some donors giving medium-sized gifts in the middle of the pyramid, and a few donors making large gifts at the top of the pyramid.

I think some people don’t like the pyramid because it visually suggests that big donors are more important than lower level donors.

I get that. But really, the visual aspect isn’t what’s important. It’s how we do the work.

In the case of annual giving, there are lots of ways to reach your goal and you may not want to work within the pyramid framework. Instead of thinking about large and small donors, you might think about new and renewed donors, or alumni and community donors, or whatever other categories most fit your mission and your donor pool.

In the case of a capital campaign, where you have a large goal to meet in a short time, I’m here to tell you that the classic campaign pyramid is the only way to work it. Here are two big reasons why:

ONE: When you raise money for a capital project, you are making a huge promise to the donors that you must be able to deliver.

It’s simply not right to promise a $25, $2,500, or even $25,000 donor that you can deliver a multi-million project unless you’re pretty darned certain you’re going to succeed. Their gifts aren’t enough to ensure that success.

Just imagine if you raise 20 percent of your goal from lower level donors and then the big gifts don’t follow. You’ll have to go back to those donors and let them know you’re unable to complete the project. Ugh.

So, you need to work the campaign pyramid from the top down. In fact, you should be expecting to raise as much as 80 percent of your goal from only 20 donors. 

This is why campaigns have a “quiet” phase. You protect your reputation and the interests of your donors by waiting to announce your goals after you know you can meet them. Then you invite everyone to participate!

TWO: Lower level gifts in a campaign are not actually about money, they’re about participation.

In a typical campaign pyramid, the smaller gifts add up to a fraction of the overall goal. It’s just too expensive to raise enough small gifts to make a large dent in a campaign goal. And, lower level fundraising for a campaign has a real risk of cannibalizing your annual fund (although there are ways to ameliorate this which I will discuss in a separate blog).

We actually do a lot of campaigns that don’t even ask for gifts from donors under $2,500 or even $5,000. That decision is based on a strategic assessment of how a campaign will benefit or be a detriment to the annual fund.

The good news is that you can customize your pyramid to make it work for your organization. Here’s an earlier blog on creating a better campaign pyramid that shows you how.

I encourage you to embrace the campaign pyramid right from the start. It’s the surest way to reach your goal and be fair to your donors.


  1. Peter Welles says:

    TY for this Ann!

    The way I’ve expressed the notion of a “donor pyramid” with people is that it really looks like a side view of the Washington Monument, the exception being that its foundation is about as wide as the Capital Mall is long.

    The challenge for orgs is how to work with people in the top tiers of the monument while continuing to build the broad base of support (the foundation) and bring those donors towards the center, and more importantly, upwards!

    I just signed up for your blog, so keep the ideas comin’!


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