The Rich are Irrelevant…and Other Thoughts about the Donor Pyramid



“The rich are irrelevant,” said Tom the other day. And so started a very interesting conversation.

Tom is my life partner and a donor communications expert. We often talk about our shared experience in philanthropy and fund development. Our respective work takes us down similar paths that often diverge and then reconnect. This philanthropy thing is our life’s work—each of us alone and both of us together.

“The rich are irrelevant,” Tom repeated. “You and I are not interested in the rich people. We aren’t interested in the money and the transaction.”

“Instead,” Tom continued, “you and I see giving as the chance to balance the scales of selfishness. Of course, all humans are selfish. Our own biology demands self-care, self-protection, fighting for our own safety and our own way of living. And if history isn’t enough to show us this selfish truth, neuroscience now documents our selfishness.”

“Of course, human beings are insightful enough to know that we’re built for selfishness. Neuroscience proves this, too. So we try to balance the scales of selfish and unselfish.”

Think about it. People balance the scales of selfishness by giving.

Giving friendship. Giving advice. Offering time. Investing money.

Philanthropy, voluntary action for the common good, is one way we balance the scales between selfishness and unselfishness.

But fundraising gets off track. Too often, fundraising focuses on money. Fundraisers and their organizations search (too often desperately) for money…and the bigger the bucks, the better.

“Fundraisers and their organizations keep searching for the top of the pyramid,” Tom said. “They don’t spend enough time moving the base up.”

Ah, yes, the pyramid and its top: the pinnacle of the pyramid, where so few donors reside. And fundraisers focus on the top. They and their organizations keep looking up. Too few fundraisers pay too little attention to too few people.

The fundraising pyramid focuses on the rich. The pyramid devalues people. Ascending the pyramid forces fundraising into a particularly narrow focus: big bucks—and only the rich have those big bucks.

There’s an irony in the pyramid, the notion that the people at the top are special and better. The pyramid gives off a certain resonance…royalty, for example. Slaves built the Egyptian pyramids for the pharaohs. Talk about “better” and “special!”

Why do we call it a “pyramid?” At least we could call it a “triangle.” There’s no negative resonance with a triangle. Maybe we could somehow avoid what I call “philanthropy’s moral dilemma” if we called it a triangle.

But more importantly, aiming for the top of the pyramid—or even the triangle—is so limiting. How about we reconceptualize? Visualize the triangle with a big bulge somewhere in the middle, above the base and below the pointy top. Maybe the bulge looks like cloud cover surrounding the middle of the mountain. Maybe the bulge is like a big donut pushed down over the top, settling around the middle section of the triangle.

“A bequest is usually the largest gift a person ever makes,” noted Tom. And fundraisers know that loyal donors (not necessarily rich ones!) make bequests.

What if fundraising focused on rejecting the pyramid, embracing the triangle, and building the bulge? What if fundraisers spent more time and energy and expertise and experience moving the base of the triangle into a big bulge right in the middle? Sure, if you can get to the top, go for it.

Embrace the rich. Just don’t focus on them.

What a luxury for Tom and me. We can encourage our clients, and those who read our writings and attend our workshops, to transition from pyramid to triangle. We can promote a big bulge.

Yes, the rich can be irrelevant.

  • Susan Howlett

    You guys are so fun. Here’s how I suggest fundraisers think about this. The top of the pyramid isn’t people with money. It’s people with deep connection to the mission. We’ve all seen instances where people without a lot of dispensable income really stretched to make a significant gift to something that matters to them — to an organization where they feel engaged in the work, connected to the leaders, on fire about the impact. My husband and I have done that, when we were leaders on boards, and we’re not rich. If we think about the top of the pyramid (or triangle) being the people with fire in their belly about our work, it takes the focus off rich people. I’d rather have a donor base full of people without a lot of resources who care deeply, than with rich people who don’t. Keep up your inspired work, you two!

  • Simone Joyaux

    Brilliant, Susan. Absolutely brilliant. The donor pyramid is about the level of fire in the belly, the level of engagement and commitment – and that produces the loyalty anyway.

    I dislike the term “major gifts.” I dislike the term “major donors” – because everyone I know who talks about “major donors” means “major gift giving donors.” And every organization defines major gift according to the organization’s terms.

    As you say, you and your partner aren’t rich. Neither are Tom and I. But we stretch for our deepest commitments. We give what we consider a “major gift” to that which we care most about. We give through organizations to achieve our own dreams and aspirations for our community and our world. So we belong – along with you and your husband – at the top of that donor pyramid…regardless of gift size.

    Thanks for your great comment. Simone

  • Kim Klein

    Simone–I always enjoy your comments and your wonderful iconoclastic approach. I would just add that at the top of the donor pyramids/triangle are the biggest donors but these are not always wealthy people. How much a person has to give bears little relationship to what they actually wind up giving. It is important not to confuse big gifts with wealth.

  • Judy Anderson

    Well, that was refreshing. I too have been trying to get nonprofits to focus on building a stronger base and increasing their relevance with people in their community. Too often nonprofits are told to find people of influence for their boards–and that means money to them. They are told to create major donor programs, that often come at the expense of community-based programs or monthly giving. They are instructed to focus on the top 10-20% of the pyramid–but the pyramid is drawn to create that as the most important part.

    Yes, nonprofits need money. But with monthly giving–and greater relevance–the community-base can play a much greater role…if we focus on that and treat them like major donors.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for the good comments. Indeed, the “biggest donors” might not be the wealthiest. And “major gift” really does depend upon the donor’s perspective, not just the organization’s view. Wouldn’t it be interesting if organizations knew what their donors considered a big gift? If we knew which of our donors was most invested in us (and we cannot know that through gift size, really) – how might we change how we play.

    And, of course, as says: “Loyalty is the holy grail of fundraising.”

    I just hate it when capital campaign consultants and other fundraisers say, in a somber tone: “You just don’t have the right people on your board.” And it turns out that the “right people” is pretty much always about access to money (How great to know Bill and Melinda!). Access to money means connections that you can connect (e.g., trespass on personal and professional relationships because you know them, not because they care about the cause). Access to money means your own bank account. “Tut tut tut. Your organization just doesn’t have enough of those right people.”

    As I’ve said before in this column. Your board is not a fundraising (or giving) squad. Your board does governance. And, yes, part of governance is about money. And, yes, part of being a board member is helping to nurture relationships and solicit gifts – and, of course, give yourself. But enough with the rich. Find people who care about the cause.