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The donor pyramid is no panacea
But claimed demise of fundraising stalwart is ‘greatly exaggerated’.


Ken Burnett,
writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.

...he has calculated the relative values of donors as they move up and down the slope and the resulting shape is not even close to triangular.

Og the Benevolent (486-569 AD).

Mrs Og, the even more charitable
(493-593 AD).

The nature of our relationship with donors is changing, perhaps irrevocably, perhaps not positively...’


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The opening several weeks of 2010 have seen all sorts of opinions bandied about the blogosphere by the fundraising chattering classes. The focus of their concerns this time has been the merits, or otherwise, of that fine institution, our old friend the donor pyramid. The exquisite and much admired Agitator has even descended into the fray, running a series of increasingly sensationalised editorials under the scandal-mongering headline, The Donor Pyramid Lie.

Politely, Tom Belford there has granted this humble columnist the last word (see The Agitator, and below), though I have no doubt that others will sneak in subsequent opinions by the back door that is their ‘comments’ option. Good, say I, as it’s an issue that never tires me. And many others, I’m sure.

For in its various transformations the donor pyramid is a subject that excites hot passions, on all sides of the debate.

The pyramid does indeed have much to answer for. Down through the ages fundraisers have unfailingly taken umbrage at precocious donors who have had the temerity to cock a snook at our sacred triangle. Donors who, without so much as a ‘May I?’ or, ‘By your leave’ insist upon sliding straight in at the level of major donor. Or, who shamelessly leapfrog directly onto the legacy platform, without having properly served their time ascending our pyramid with the rest of the donating public, as we have decreed that they should, in the prescribed, pre-ordained and time honoured sequence. And with no recourse possible, from our perspective, as they are then truly beyond the pale.

To quote the blessed George Smith, how dare they? How dare they?

To add to this, the learned John Rodd, a man who knows data in all its formats and complexities, told me recently that he has calculated the relative values of donors as they move up and down the slope (we should be grateful) and the resulting shape is not even close to triangular. Which, I think, proves the point that our illustrious pyramid is nothing more than what it always has been: a convenient way of illustrating the direction we’d like to imagine most of our donor relationships will follow – with or without our interference.

Who are we to cry, ‘Outrage!’, if they then decide to do things differently? Fortunately for fundraisers the magic of averages dictates that most won’t. So these formulaic shapes, while not infallible, are still valid and valuable. Eighteen years ago when describing the evolutions, or mutations, illustrated opposite I was merely trying to broaden the debate, partly to help fundraisers of course, but mainly I confess because I find fundraisers reactions to and expectations from the pyramid so enjoyable.

I’m sure future fundraisers will continue to evolve improved versions too. (I’d originally thought to predict some of these in this article and was going to title the piece Things of Shapes to Come, but decided against it.)

The donor dodecahedron (in development)

I love the donor pyramid, but it’s not a panacea. What is most significant and serious for our profession now is that the nature of our relationship with donors is certainly changing, perhaps irrevocably, perhaps not positively. Alas, whatever we do or don’t do about this, it probably won’t be anything triangular, or any other shape for that matter, that will point us in the right direction to anticipate or even interpret our donors’ changing needs. Even if we could conceive the donor dodecahedron (above) it was always unlikely that a single geometric construct would solve all our problems.

So while there’s much merit in the continuing efforts of Tony Elischer (Agitator 26/01/10) and others to redefine and enhance the pyramid, whatever we do to it won’t help us to provide our donors with a more fulfilling experience or to get half decent at things like giving brilliant feedback and saying thank you and welcome properly. These are the things we really need to refine and improve if we want to increase engagement and income from donors.

Nevertheless, it would be premature to lament the faithful old pyramid’s passing, for it still has its uses, if only for fundraisers who know precisely what they should do with it.

Anyway, you’ll see, opposite, the ‘last word’ that the people at The Agitator allowed me. I should point out though that I was, obviously, attempting to be ironic in this observation. As everyone well knows, Og the Benevolent was dispensing his wisdom in 563 AD, not BC.

© Ken Burnett 2010

Ken Burnett’s books on fundraising and communication include the classic Relationship Fundraising: a donor-based approach to the business of raising money, Friends for Life: relationship fundraising in practice and The Zen of Fundraising. For books that should grace your bookshelf, click here.

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Way back in 1992 the donor pyramid and its rivals were hotly debated whenever and wherever fundraisers congregated. But is it still relevant, today? The page above is from the first edition of Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising.

From The Agitator, 29 January 2010
The Donor Pyramid Lie – V

I promise … after today, we’ll give the donor pyramid a rest. For now, Ken Burnett gets the last word on The Pyramid, and discloses the true origins of its chief rival, The Trapezoid…

Hello Tom,

I hope you are well and that 2010 is going good for you and all Agitators.

You and I are both long in the tooth, and well familiar with how often the accepted wisdoms of the past can come around again, and again, and even again, repackaged and represented as something new. So I’ve been following your debate on the dreaded donor pyramid with child-like fascination.

I find it curiously reassuring to read the cut and thrust of the various exchanges and was particularly pleased to digest Kristin McCurry’s insightful comments concerning the donor trapezoid.

So I thought you might be interested in the attached, a little bit of history reproduced from page 61 of the 1992 edition of my book Relationship Fundraising. The 2002 edition (Jossey-Bass Inc) has the subject spread across pages 47-50, so the issue is dissected and illustrated in the detail it deserves.

There really is nothing new.

In case you or any of your readers think that I invented the donor trapezoid, a detailed study through the annals of SOFII ( will I’m sure show that the donor trapezoid was in fact first illustrated by the Nordic mystic Og the Benevolent in 563 BC and inscribed, in chalk, upon the walls of the temple to the God-king Segmentation III in Uppsala, Sweden, in January of that year.

My prediction for the future of fundraising is that, whenever and wherever fundraisers may gather to plot and plan their predations against the donor classes, our tried and trusted old friend the donor pyramid will pop up too, in one form or another, to guide our approaches.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and all that.

A jolly good thing the old pyramid is, too, in all its iterations. Who needs more sophisticated technologies? If you ask me there’s too much of this change thing about, these days.

Pip pip!


Of course, the fundamental issue we have been exploring here is how to win increasing support from every donor. With that goal in mind, Roger will attempt to draw some insights out of this week’s discussion and offer some direction (and resources) in his upcoming posts. (Follow that here.)