The Fundraising Executive

Identification Pyramid: From Friends to Followers to Raving Fans

By Eddie Thompson | August 29, 2012 | Development Management

Fundraising executives spend a lot of time looking at pyramids. These planning charts help us prioritize our fundraising goals and keep us focused on the relationships that matter most to the organization. All pyramids have strata — levels that categorize people in increasingly smaller but more significant groups. The goal, of course, is to progressively move people up the pyramid to their highest level of potential involvement. Prospects become first time donors, who become repeat donor, who become regular donors, and so on.

Every fundraising pyramid I have ever seen categorized people in terms of actual or potential dollars — by amount, frequency, or type of donations. No surprise there; raising money is our ever-pressing responsibility. But equally important for a long-term development strategy is the affinity each donor feels for the organization. That suggests the need for a pyramid planning chart that categorizes people in terms of the level and intensity of the relationship they have with the organization.

This has typically been the approach of passionate individuals who are recent arrivals to cause-oriented initiatives. New charity and social responsibility movements are building their organizations by creating “friends,” “followers,” as well as those who “like” them, “join” their groups, and “forward” their messages. It is no accident that these are all social media terms. The first approach in these campaigns has been to recruit, establish, and upgrade constituent affinity for and identity with the cause.

Established non-profit leaders) need to pay attention to the dynamics of twenty-first century grass roots philanthropy. Something fundamentally different is going on here.

Among established non-profits, however, there is often a built-in resistance to social media as an automated funding tool. It is reminiscent of the legendary steel-driving contest between John Henry and the “new-fangled” steam engine.

Irrespective of established fundraisers’ preferences (of lack thereof) for social media tools, they need to pay attention to the dynamics of twenty-first century grass roots philanthropy. Something fundamentally different is going on here. Though followers easily acquired can quickly un-follow or un-friend you, don’t let that obscure the fact that fundraising momentum in the future will be dominated by those who focus on building both identity and dollars.

Though we all acknowledge that donor relationships are important, most of our planning is driven by dollar-defined categories. Truthfully, moving donors up the typical donation pyramid is often easier than moving them up an identification pyramid. Collecting a check is one thing; developing passion in a cause is another. Of course, if they become raving fans, then the money (and maybe a lot more) will follow.

Collecting a check is one thing; soliciting passion is another.

I visited with a woman who had worked for years at a hospital as a mid-level administrator. Since she would have barely made it on the potential donor pyramid at the lowest level, executives suggested that meeting with her might not be the best used of our limited time. However, they had no idea of the woman’s affinity for the charity or the degree to which she felt personally identified with the institution. Her six-million dollar gift stunned the hospital fundraisers because they prioritized their charitable estate planning efforts by assumed potential dollars without considering levels of affinity and identity. I have personally seen this story replayed hundreds of times.

The College Fan Pyramid
How fans relate to their favorite college athletics program is a good example of an identification pyramid.

Level One — Casual Fans: On the bottom level of the pyramid are the casual fans who wish the team well. They occasionally watch on television and might attend a few games each year. Casual fan tends to jump on and off the bandwagon depending on how the team is doing.

Level Two — Raving Fans: These are passionate fans who have all the gear, fly the team flag, and decorate their homes in team colors. They tailgate, paint their faces, and (if they are true raving fans) plan weddings around the game schedule.

Level Three — The Boosters: These are people who may or may not look like raving fans, but they are deeply identified with the team. They are an elite fraternity of supporters who feel a sense of responsibility, leadership, and ownership with the program. They give generously, raise money for the program, and recruit other boosters into the club. The program is where it is, largely because of their involvement.

Level Four — The Independent Spokesman: Only a few organizations are able to elevate major donors to the level of an independent spokesman. That is what T. Bone Pickens is to the Oklahoma State University athletic program; what Jerry Lewis is to the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, what Danny Thomas was and now Marlo Thomas is to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. These major donors have become fully indentified with the organization. The MD Foundation even refers to the young patients as “Jerry’s Kids.”

Established non-profit institutions with their experienced development staff should be able to do a much better job of building and upgrading long-term constituent identity with the organization than social-movement newcomers. However, it has to be a matter of focus. If we measure people only in terms of donations and potential donations, we will miss many opportunities. We will also be far less likely to develop our skills at winning hearts and stirring up passion for the cause. As they say, “What you measure and monitor improves.”

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2012, R. Edward Thompson