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The Donor Pyramid and Marketing Funnel Have Changed

Egyptian pyramidFundraisers used to focus on the pyramid.

Bring small donors in at the bottom. Move ’em up, incrementally, to the top. What happened was the donors at the bottom didn’t get much attention, leading to a situation where today 79 percent of first-time donors flow right out of your base. In other words, the pyramid’s base is more like a river than a solid block of bricks. Not very strong. A pretty wobbly foundation on which to base the life of your nonprofit.

Marketers used to focus on the funnel.

Sort of like an upside-down pyramid. Swoop the masses into the funnel from the top; move the weightiest ones down through the funnel’s mouth (I suppose the lighter-than-air ones simply evaporated).

The digital revolution changed everything

The marketing model is closer to what’s happening today, but it’s a lot more active than in the past. More of a swirling energy vortex that can sometimes swoop the seemingly (at first) lighter folks deeper and deeper into the center.

And there’s one big reason.

Both fundraising and marketing endeavored to move folks from (1) awareness to ... (2) interest to ... (3) involvement to ... (4) investment. Now, due to the digital revolution, there’s a fifth and final step.


Some describe this as engaging. Or partnering. Or collaborating. Or networking. Some simply call it online word of mouth.

It turns out this fifth/final step is today’s real powerhouse. Your new goal is to turn supporters into advocates who will amplify your messaging and add their own “social proof” stamp of approval. Folks won’t be inclined to do this unless you serve them up content that’s valuable to them—in one fashion or another.

You no longer tell folks what’s valuable; they tell you!

The model has very much shifted from outbound to inbound. So open your ears, heart, and mind.

Smart nonprofits emphasize listening over broadcasting.

This doesn’t mean you stop communicating with people. Not at all. There are more ways than ever to do so, and you need to show up wherever your would-be supporters are apt to be. But the reason you’re there is not to shout your message out through a megaphone and browbeat folks into submission to your goals.

It’s no longer about you—what you think, what you feel, what you do, and what you think others should think, feel and do. It’s no longer a monologue. It’s got to be a dialogue.

No more “We’re great. We do this and that. We assume you care. We need you to give us money. If you’re not on board with this, you better change. In fact, we’re going to twist your arm until you do.”

No. No. No.

Much better would be “You’re awesome because you care about helping (your mission goal).... Please tell us which of these three programs matter most to you. And please share with your friends so together we can create the most meaningful change possible.”

When you show you’re interested in others’ opinions, and willing to listen, you lift them up rather than beat them down.

Today’s consumers are already well-informed

New technologies have made it possible for everyone to know everything at any time. So information is no longer your source of power. You’re not going to change people, or win hearts and minds, with this type of old-school fundraising and marketing approach.

Mark Schaefer, marketing guru and author of the books Marketing Rebellion and Known, puts it this way (emphasis mine):

People don’t need our marketing and advertising to make an informed decision or change their minds. They possess the accumulated knowledge of the human race in the palm of their hands. Our customers are completely capable of making up their own minds. Shouldn’t we respect that?

The information flow of influence these days is almost never from a company down to a consumer. It’s a tangled web of interconnections that result in unique customer journeys and decision paths.

In this age, a brand is what people tell each other. If an opinion is going to change, it is most likely going to come from a trusted friend, not from a company marketing initiative.”

—Mark Schaefer

You don’t get to withhold the “goodies”

In fact, you don’t get to determine what the “goodies” are.

That practice is organization-centric, not donor-centric.

The heart of a fundraising appeal that will be successful is one that speaks to donor concerns. In other words, if the problem you address is one the donor cares about, then you have a match. Then you’ve got a resonant story to tell. One your donor may want to become a part of.

If you don’t know what the donor cares about, then you’re just spitting into the wind.

Listening. Actively engaging. Networking. That’s what enables you to serve up content that’s of interest to your supporters. Otherwise, they won’t pay attention.

You need to know what folks have a hankering for; then give that to them.

If you want gifts you must give them

This means developing a donor-centered content marketing strategy. (Download this free Donor-Centered Content Marketing Worksheet & Checklist.)

Serve up content that’s useful. And generous. And alluring.

Just like any present, your best approach will entice folks to open up your gift of content.

TIP: Stop essentially interrupting folks by sending out information they’ve no use for. Ego-centric content won't get noticed. Donors (with the exception of your board and other insiders) don’t care you:

  • Rebranded

  • Upgraded your website

  • Hired a new staff person

  • Got a big grant

  • Expanded your office space

NOTE: For insiders, you should be messaging to them as a differentiated segment. Everything for those who are already close to you should be more personal. As in: “Because you sat through rebranding discussions at our meetings, I want you to be the first to see our new look. Please send feedback—there’s nothing more valuable to us!”

You must invite attention in our digital age.

The reality is today’s would-be donors are bombarded with messages.

Crafting a message that will stand out and resonate with your natural constituency takes thought and skill.

It means knowing your supporters better, so you can think like they do. That means asking for feedback, listening to that feedback, and recording that information in your database. Otherwise, it’s useless to you.

TIP: Do you:

  • Send donor surveys?

  • Ask for feedback on your blog or e-newsletter or via emails?

  • Ask for feedback via social media?

  • Ask for feedback at events?

  • Conduct focus groups?

  • Hold virtual, interactive “town hall” meetings?

  • Host small group events where you incorporate feedback opportunities?

  • Meet for one-to-one coffees or lunches?

  • Pay attention to “clues” such as folks who earmark gifts for specific programs?

  • Pay attention to LinkedIn, Facebook, or other email notifications that clue you in to donor interests and accomplishments?

  • Pay attention to your most clicked-on web pages, stories, and emails?

Before sending any piece of content, think: “What will my prospective supporter value about this?”

You need people to find value in what you offer if you want them to give back value in return.

All of fundraising and nonprofit marketing is based on a value-for-value exchange.

I’d encourage you to make this your new mantra: Deliver meaning.

You can offer both upfront and after-the-fact meaning and value.

TIP: Upfront value

  • Action alert. This enables folks to do something that enacts their values and provides personal meaning.

  • Volunteer opportunity. People are looking for purposeful ways to give back.

  • How-to video, cheat sheet, or article. Rather than telling people how much you know, show them how helpful you can be.

  • Compelling story. We all love a good story.

  • Research report. People love to be the first to know things and to have data to back up their arguments.

  • Invitation to a free event. Fun is fun. Especially when it’s “members only.”

  • Token gift. The less expensive the better. It’s the thought that counts. I like sending snapshots of donors taken at events. Or star stickers for stellar behavior. Or big heart stickers for showing their love.

  • Funny joke. People appreciate a good laugh.

  • Inspirational quote. People appreciate inspiration that aligns with their values and gives them a warm glow.

  • Giveaway opportunity. People enjoy playing games of chance.

TIP: After-the-fact value

  • Killer thank-you that makes supporters feel really good. This includes a donation landing page, thank-you email, thank-you letter, and, potentially, a thank-you phone call. (Check out 72 Creative Ways to Thank Your Donors.)

  • Report on how the gift will be used

  • Outcome report on how the gift accomplished the donor’s objectives

  • Invitation to get further engaged via free events, online town halls or hang-outs, advocacy campaigns, peer-to-peer fundraising, etc.

  • Invitation to become a volunteer

  • Ongoing communications that make the donor feel glad they’re part of your tribe

Say so long to linear marketing and fundraising

Your constituents no longer come in at the bottom to climb to the top.

They no longer come in at the top to funnel to the bottom.

That’s nice and neat and seemingly within your control, but ...

You’re no longer in control!

Recent research by McKinsey shows two-thirds of marketing is not your marketing; it’s taking place someplace else.

The proliferation of decision influencers—along with the growing amount of data about them and their behavior—reverses the funnel logic. It’s now possible to follow the lead of customers rather than force them to follow the sales organization.”


Today’s engagement model focuses not just on the strength of the dollars given, but on the love and engagement freely offered

It’s driven not by fundraising, but by philanthropy (i.e., “love of human kind”). It’s fueled not by singular transactions, but by transformative interactions that lead to deep, lasting relationships.

Again, it’s more of a vortex—an energized circle.

Everyone is equal in a circle; it’s just at times some folks have more energy than others. People move in and out, giving and getting, as the time and spirit move them.

As the energy builds up, some are swooped toward the center of the vortex and stay there.

They’re the ones whose energy (and values) match yours most closely. They’re the ones where the chemical reaction (or, as Yoda might say, “the force”) is so strong and the energizing experience of the circle (your community, your family, your tribe) is so potent that they simply can’t resist you.

These become your hard core of supporters—the ones you continue to supply with lots of energy.

In the energized circle/vortex model, donors are not categorized solely by their money. They’re people, first and foremost. Sometimes, when things are going well for them, they become donor-investors helping other people. Sometimes, when other things in life take precedence, they may share your campaign with their networks. Or even become recipients of philanthropy.

And the CIRCLE of life continues.

Hakuna matata.

Claire AxelradClaire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Check out her online course, Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies.

Topics: Content Marketing Donor Communications Donor Stewardship Donor-Centric Content Donor Acquisition Donor Pyramid Marketing Funnel