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What Is a Donor Pyramid?

A donor pyramid is a strategic tool used in fundraising that visualizes the hierarchy of contributors, from numerous small-gift donors at the base to a few major benefactors at the peak. It helps organizations identify and cultivate potential donors at each level, ensuring a stable and growing funding base. How might this model evolve with new trends in philanthropy? Continue with us to find out.
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

The donor pyramid, or donor development pyramid, is a standard method for generating fundraising dollars in the 21st century. It is a straightforward way of looking at the giving public, from the base of the pyramid where all types of donors reside, to the tip where only the most generous life-long benefactors can reside. Though the pyramid provides one way of analyzing the pool of an organization's potential givers, other methods take a top-down approach to cultivate the most donors who are apt to give more than once.

When an organization seeks to attract the most attention to build its wealth, it will look anywhere and everywhere. This approach can be exemplified by the donor pyramid, which lumps every potential donor into the base section of the pyramid. As the pyramid ascends and narrows, these sections represent incrementally dwindling numbers of repeat donors, generous one-time donations, and what are known as legacy donors at the top. These benefactors represent the smallest number of an organization's total donors.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

For more diversified yet targeted fundraising, an organization might consult its donor pyramid. This will allow representatives to focus their efforts on repeat donors who have proven the most connected with the mission. An organization might also use the pyramid to conduct a universal mailing that goes to a cross-sampling of households that may not know about the cause. In this way, fundraisers can attempt to connect with donors of all economic means — from small, one-time donations to gifts from people who will continue to grow into legacy givers. The model helps the organization direct its efforts toward reaching people in every segment of the pyramid.

This is just one model used by fundraising professionals who only have so much time to raise as much money as possible. Another model, called the kite model, takes that iconic shape — wide at the top with legacy and regular high-dollar givers and thin at the bottom with prospective, one- or two-time givers. Using this model instead of the donor pyramid, fundraisers can target their efforts toward wooing those donors who have contributed the most to the organization over time, being the ones who are most likely to give again.

This kite framework is supported by what is referred to in academic circles as the Pareto principle, an 80:20 ratio that exists in fundraising efforts, with 80 percent of an organization's money coming from the upper echelon of donors. Using this method to visualize the donor pool, in contrast to the donor pyramid, allows fundraisers to devote the most time cultivating the right relationships. Most frequently, organizations will quantify revenues using both models to visualize which marketing efforts are working and which are not.

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