Scaffolding Around the Campaign Pyramid

Pyramids have served as physical icons of wonder and inspiration for millennia. From those that served as monuments to the afterlife in ancient cultures, to the modern example in Las Vegas standing as a monument of excess, the pyramid structure has always been powerful in its ability to captivate and motivate. The pyramid’s influence remains even when it is reduced to a symbol. The USDA food pyramid is one example of the icon’s motivational power, but the shape also frequently appears connected to wealth and prosperity. For instance, the '70s and '80s game show, “$10,000 Pyramid,” hosted by Dick Clark, used the icon to motivate contestants to a financial payout; even the U.S. dollar bill mysteriously bears its mark. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the fundraising industry, no stranger to challenges both motivational and financial, has widely adopted the symbol.

Why Pyramids?

To understand the pyramid’s timeless popularity, it helps to understand a couple of important facts about a pyramid’s construction. First, as opposed to a cube, sphere, pillar or monolith, a pyramid of equivalent height has less weight pushing down from the top. Thus, less effort is required to carry bricks and materials upward, and less foresight is needed to keep the structure from toppling over. Second, the project plan is relatively uncomplicated: The desired height determines the necessary base size, and, conversely, the size of the base dictates the potential height. Put simply, the simplicity of pyramid design allowed ancient societies to construct huge structures from many very small pieces, without advanced engineering degrees (or ancient aliens).

It’s no stretch to extend this metaphor to fundraising. When building a campaign pyramid, the pyramid’s total height represents the financial goal. The height is divided into one or more levels, each representing a specific gift amount, such as $50K-$100K, $100K-$250K, and so on. The levels are composed of bricks representing individual gifts, and each level’s width is determined by the number of gifts needed to complete the level. Just like a structural pyramid, a campaign pyramid is built systematically, layer upon layer, from numerous gifts stacked upon each other.

Campaign Pyramid

Breaking down a campaign goal into a series of smaller gifts helps concentrate fundraisers on slow-and-steady progress. To be sure, large campaigns require a number of very large donations, but too often these become the focus at the expense of the smaller gifts comprising the campaign’s foundation. Using a well-crafted pyramid as a motivational tool helps reduce the chances of all-or-nothing thinking, and consequently tempers the extreme outcomes of winning big or losing big in favor of chipping away at a goal systematically.

Secondarily, when incorporated into campaign planning and at periodic check-ins, the exercise of constructing and revising a pyramid helps determine the feasibility and suitability of a campaign goal. Just as the maximum height of a physical pyramid is determined by the number of bricks used in its construction, the potential dollars to be raised is limited by the number of gifts available. After having reached a target height, if there are still bricks or gifts available, it is certainly quite feasible to continue stacking more on each level to reach even greater heights. This implies that not only is a pyramid exercise helpful for forecasting an initial goal, it is also useful for adjusting course as the campaign progresses, whether this is to modify the fundraisers’ behavior or the goal itself.

Campaign Pyramids Increasingly Utilize Both Art and Science

Campaign pyramid construction has historically been the domain of campaign leadership and high-priced consultants, leaving prospect development teams to wonder if campaign goals were, in fact, dictated from on high from ancient aliens. Rest assured, this is highly implausible, but a couple of equally mysterious explanations prevail: Perhaps leadership simply increased last campaign’s goal by some percentage; second, leadership might choose a goal that is politically convenient, or just a nice round number. In either case, data is gathered after the fact to justify leadership’s decision.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with either of these methods. The concern is that the order is off, as data is not used correctly when it is subordinate to hunches and whims. This is not to suggest that hunches are without merit, but it may be that the valuable intuition honed over years of experience blinds leaders to important patterns that data may be able to expose.

For this reason, campaign leadership teams have been progressively inviting prospect development teams to the table, transforming the process into a cycle in which wisdom is supported by data and data are supplemented by wisdom. Increasingly, successful campaign pyramids blend both fundraising art and science, and the pyramid is constructed and maintained with scaffolding provided by prospect research and analytics.

Leadership responsibilities chart

As the responsibilities of prospect development teams increase, it is important that the extent of the involvement is clearly delineated. The direction of a campaign surely requires boots-on-the-ground intelligence gathered by fundraisers and professionals whose connections are attuned to the winds of change, whether political, economic or otherwise. The ultimate decisions should always be left to campaign leadership; our role in providing campaign scaffolding is to allow leaders to be intentional, well-informed and data-driven.

Scaffolding the Pyramid With Analytics

For a data-driven perspective on goal setting, campaign leadership has increasingly relied on the support of fundraising analytics teams. Analysts play the role of campaign pyramid architect while drawing up plausible scenarios using current and historical data. Just like an architect relies on building codes, style guidelines and a sense of artistry, a data analyst must use statistical science, business sense and creativity in building reasonable campaign pyramids.

The principal concern when developing a data-based pyramid is choosing among the countless ways in which a goal might be reached. For instance, a $100M campaign goal could be reached via:

  • A single $100M gift
  • Ten $10M gifts
  • One hundred $1M gifts
  • One thousand $100K gifts
  • A million $100 gifts
  • …or virtually an infinite number of other scenarios!

Fundraisers, who are generally optimistic in their behavior, tend to chase scenarios in which a small number of gifts closed at high ask amounts comprises the entire campaign. This may be a completely sensible approach if the donor pool supports the strategy. On the other hand, it may overestimate the pool’s potential, or conversely underestimate the pool, leaving tremendous amounts of money on the table.

Data analytics can help illustrate which campaign scenario is reasonable given historic performance and current prospect pools. The math and statistics that govern scenario generation can be boiled down to simple rules and constraints. Essentially, since a pyramid’s height dictates the materials needed (and vice versa), knowledge about the desired campaign goal and potential number of donations available restricts the pyramid’s general shape. Rules-of-thumb based on historic trends and experience-based hunches and assumptions adds additional detail to the scenario.

The University of Michigan has developed an interactive campaign pyramid scenario workbook in Excel, which the analytics team uses to construct data-driven campaign scenarios. The exercise assists with determining the feasibility of proposed campaign goals, forecasting potential goals and adjusting goals mid-campaign. And because it is interactive, it may be used as part of a consultation with campaign directors, enabling them to examine the impact of their decisions, assumptions and goal revisions during the meeting in real time. We’ve made the workbook available to the community at no charge.

Though the specific computations that govern the spreadsheet are beyond the scope of this piece, the basic workflow is straightforward. The spreadsheet guides users through a series of five steps that combine data and intuition to arrive at a reasonable scenario:

  1. Proposing a “straw man” campaign goal, which will be evaluated for feasibility.
  2. Estimating the contribution of annual giving using the historic run rate expanded to cover the current campaign’s duration.
  3. Estimating the corporate/foundation giving by applying historic patterns to the current goal.
  4. Planning to raise the remainder through major giving, by identifying a realistic strategy to meet the total through the fewest number of gifts. In other words, we assume that fundraisers would rather meet the goal through a small number of very large gifts than a large number of very small gifts. So that the scenario does not always reduce to a single very large gift, the number of gifts at each dollar level is limited by the number of rated prospects at the level and a “conversion ratio” measuring historic gifts closed per prospect.
  5. Comparing the computed scenario total to the “straw man” total, adjusting assumptions or goals if necessary to better reflect reality.

Interactive pyramid spreadsheet

Having completed these steps, one will have arrived at a plausible, data-supported campaign goal. However, it is still all hypothetical — even the best laid plans can go awry. A multi-year campaign depends on fundraisers, whose motivation changes over time; politics, changing priorities and the economy may also impact the odds that the scenario plays out according to plan.

What can be done to improve the odds of success? For one, prospect development and analytics teams can help keep the finish line in sight by revisiting the campaign scenario periodically. This also helps fundraisers to see the forest from the trees. Knowing that the goal comprises a number of gifts of various sizes helps to balance effort between chipping away at the goal little by little rather than the all-or-nothing strategy of pursuing the largest of gifts. Secondly, keeping the work fresh with regular prospecting projects helps break down the multi-year endeavor into a series of more manageable projects. If the pyramid scaffolding continues to be maintained in this way, the structure can be renovated as the demands change over time.


Demands are undoubtedly changing at an incredibly rapid pace. Every year, we hear of campaign goals that are expanding much faster than the rate of inflation; and despite these enormous goals, organizations are not only meeting, but exceeding their wildest expectations. Fundraisers are operating under greater pressure to perform, not only due to these ever-larger goals, but also due to the need to raise money for an ever-increasing array of causes and initiatives. The scaffolding provided by prospect development and analytics teams throughout the campaign surely has enabled this performance; consequently, prospect development should share the credit for these gains.

Throughout virtually all of recorded history, pyramids have represented achievement, progress and prosperity. In the context of a fundraising campaign, they are likewise motivational, but they also contextualize the goal as a series of practical and reasonable steps — especially salient in our era of rising expectations. Of course, to build these data-supported pyramids requires a combination of art and science that prospect development teams are uniquely equipped to provide.

Positioned with access to raw data on prospects and trends, as well as access to fundraisers’ field intelligence, prospect development teams already have everything they need to be involved in this process. Though there is no one-size-fits-all formula for doing so, this article highlighted one readily adaptable method by which prospect development teams can easily generate data-driven scenarios, which can be incorporated into campaign planning or midpoint check-in meetings. The process has been used at the University of Michigan for over 50 unit, regional and initiative-based campaigns, and the demand for this service shows no sign of slowing down, despite the overall campaign winding down. In fact, our prospect development and analytics team is already preparing for the next campaign. Yours should, too.

Brett Lantz is the associate director of analytics at the University of Michigan Office of University Development, and the author of "Machine Learning with R." A sociologist by training, Brett is dedicated to using data to understand human behavior. 


Want to learn more about campaigns? Check out the Apra webcast Breaking the Pyramid: Planning Successful Campaigns in the Shape of Today’s Donors.


Thank you

April 20, 2017 08:06 AM by Stephen Lambert, PhD

Brett, thank you for your leadership and generosity on this subject!


May 2, 2017 11:03 AM by Ashutosh R Nandeshwar

Awesome job on this tool, Brett.

Campaign Pyramid

May 2, 2017 02:53 PM by Frances A. Anamosa

Is there a way to email a copy of this to myself?  I would also like to see the graphics in larger detail so that I can examine them more closely.  Thanks.  

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