Re-Imagining the Donor Pyramid as a Multi-Entrance Gallery

We’re familiar with the analogy of a donor pyramid, which shows numbers of donors arranged in ascending annual giving totals. At the base are donors with the lowest annual totals per donor (for example in a value band from $1-$100 total and they usually the most numerous. At the top are donors with the largest annual total per donor (for example in a value band of $10,000 or more total). They are usually the least numerous.

In some versions, the layers of the pyramid are purely value-defined, and in some versions, this is mixed with giving types (for example, defining regular givers or gifts in wills donors irrespective of the value of their gifts).

The pyramid is a simple static depiction of numbers of donors compared to their giving value. It’s also a useful graphic reminder to think about whether there’s a dynamic process and two-way communication to encourage donors to “move up the pyramid”. 

However the pyramid as a static depiction tells us little, and potential misleads fundraisers to think that:

  • There’s a donor motivation, or worse still, and statistical rule, which means that a certain proportion of donors “should or will move up the pyramid”
  • Most donors who give in the highest value bands, began by giving small amounts.
  • The most important fact about donors is how much they currently donate.
At Xponential, we’ve come to think that we would better to use an analogy like an art gallery, with multiple entrances, through which our donors can walk in see what experiences are inside.

Here’s a valuable analysis from The Benchmarking Project. It considers the cohort of all individual donors who gave a gift of $10,000 or more in CY2021 (excluding $1m+ gifts), from 37 large and medium NFPs. It then categorises these donors by their first gift value (and also the gift number (1-15+). So, for all major donor income in 2021:  

  • 54.5% of all income was from donors whose first gift (regardless of its date) was a Major Gift
  • 18.9% was from donors with a Mid Value first gift ($1,000 – $9,999)
  • 26.6% was from donors with a Standard Value first gift (<$1,000)

In a discussion of an article from Donor Voice about the uses and misuses of the pyramid, one fundraiser commented “Unlike the pyramids of Giza, a fundraising pyramid should allow easy entry at every level”.

A few short qualifiers: this data excludes foundations, and it’s for one year of Australian data (although it would be likely similar to that of other years). And this simple data doesn’t tell how long it takes for donors who first gave at Standard or Mid Value, to reach Major level. Dig down into the analysis from The Benchmarking Project and you can find that, too.

As of writing, 1st Feb 2023, The Benchmarking Porject is still open for 2023 to Accelerator Memberships – access to in-depth data about Australian fundraising of almost all kinds, which you won’t find anywhere else.