Nonprofit Remix

Translating business research into nonprofit language

Fundraising, Off Topic

Nonprofit echo chamber: Pyramid or Vortex?

Is fundraising so different from sales that it has its own set of rules?

I think that if you asked that question to the authors of these two blog posts: How Social Media Toppled the Donor Pyramid(1) and Is the Donor Pyramid Really Dead? they would both probably say, “Yep.” Except they would say it in a several thousand word blog post, right?

The root of their two arguments is that fundraising is either best done in a systematic “move people up the ladder” way, or it should be a more chaotic “engage everyone at all times” process.

Most cynically, you wonder if they’re trying to protect their own book sales and speaking engagements, which support one theory or another. But let’s assume it’s less sinister than that. Is it important to adhere to some kind of framework for your development efforts, whether pyramid or vortex?

That’s pretty easy to answer, only because there are thousands of articles published in scholarly journals that address exactly that question. Like these, and these, and probably these.

But central to the question is whether the consumer purchase decision is equivalent to the donor gift decision. Are for-profits and nonprofits meaningfully different here?

One of the more definitive research papers on the subject comes from way back in the pre-web days of 1988 in the Journal of Services Marketing. In “The Marketing of Altruistic Causes: Understanding Why People Help,” authors Guy and Patton explore the decision making process that people go through when deciding when to help. Surprisingly, (for me at least) the analogous situation to being asked for a donation is deciding whether or not to stop to help at a traffic accident. Specifically, let’s discuss the bystander effect.

Scenario 1: You see some recently smashed up cars at the side of the road. There is nobody there helping. Do you stop?

Scenario 2: You see some recently smashed up cars at the side of the road. There are a dozen people around the cars helping. Do you stop?

I would hypothesize that more people stop to help in scenario 1. But what on earth does this have to do with the donor pyramid vs. the donor vortex? A lot.

It turns out that there’s a bunch of academic research showing that group size can actually deter helping behavior. And what’s social media if not a really big group of people? Instead of more magazine articles and blogs trying to pitch us new frameworks for the digital age, how about some solid academic research on donor behavior?

If you’re looking for a PhD thesis topic, here’s one: “Does the bystander effect exist in online communities?” And when it’s published, let me know so we can discuss it on

(1) That blog post was actually a hyperbolic commentary on this advertorial article in SSIR: Stanford Social Innovation Review

Photo credit: By Bertramz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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