The other donor pyramid

If development officers close their eyes real tight, they can visualize something known as the donor pyramid, a well-known tool of the fundraising trade. Here’s the usual version of the pyramid:


The donor pyramid illustrates some important development concepts. For example:

• Many names need to be in our prospective donor list.

• By building relationships, we encourage donors to move up to the next level of the pyramid.

• Larger gifts are given by smaller groups of donors.

• Most gifts come from current donors we already know.

• At the very top of the pyramid are bequests and other planned gifts – mega-gifts offered by long-time donors who have enjoyed close ties with our organization.

• An effective development program will employ effective strategies to invite gifts from donors from all levels of the pyramid.

Notice that the typical donor pyramid is built according to numbers of donors and gifts, which decrease in size in moving toward the top of the pyramid. For example, fewer prospects will become first-time donors, and only some regular major donors will become lead donors. But here’s another way to construct the pyramid – by dollars contributed:

This upside-down rendering is a dramatic reminder of an essential understanding in development: The largest potential sources of charitable dollars for many nonprofit organizations are bequests and planned gifts – offered by a relatively small number of donors who have been friends and supporters over many years. Too many nonprofit organizations do not recognize this fact or act on it. As Ken Burnett puts it, “. . . [bequests and planned gifts are] the ultimate pinnacle of relationship fundraising, the collection of a just reward for a lifetime of carefully developing and maintaining the right kind of relationship with the right kind of people.” (Source: Relationship Fundraising, Jossey-Bass, 2002)

Does this picture reflect your organization? How do you encourage your donors to consider planned gifts? What results have you enjoyed? What is the potential for such gifts in the future?

If you want to bolster your planned giving program, the place to start is by identifying prospective donors of such gifts. As the donor pyramids depict, these friends are most often already in your database and have been giving to your organization for a long time. Here are some specific ideas to find your best prospects.

1. Consider the traditional characteristics of planned gift donors and comb your database for friends with these attributes:

• Older (someone retired or near retirement)

• Single

• No direct heirs

• Often female

• Record of previous gifts or other involvement with your organization

• Have appreciated property

2. Create a profile of donors who have made planned gifts to your organization:

• List donor name, size of gift, type of gift, and use of gift.

• Review circumstances of the gift: Was it directly solicited? What factors may have influenced the gift? What previous connections did the donor have with your organization? Where do/did the donors live?

What does this profile suggest for potential donors? They will likely resemble previous donors in many ways.

3. Keeping appropriate confidence, invite current planned gift donors and other close friends of your organization to identify friends and relatives who might be candidates for such gifts.

4. In newsletters and other communication to your mailing list, include interesting features about individual donors and the stories behind their planned gifts. And add check-off boxes on return envelopes that allow readers to register potential interest in making planned gifts.

5. Offer convenient seminars related to planned giving, presented by representatives of local foundations and trust departments. Make special attempts to encourage attendance of your strong prospects for such gifts.

6. Create and maintain an up-to-date list of your current and prospective planned gift donors. Make personal visits with each prospect at least once a year. As possible and comfortable, ask directly about potential interest in considering a planned gift.

Close your eyes again and visualize the donor pyramid. Do you still only see the traditional one – built on numbers of gifts and donors? Look again, more carefully. Can you also see the one constructed with dollars? It’s worth a look.

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