The Cultivation Pyramid: Moving Prospects to Lifelong Donors

This post is written by Lara Goetsch (director of marketing and communications) and Lydia P. Swift (development manager), of Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre Company.

Sometimes your best creative work happens over a martini.

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It was the spring of 2010. Lydia had identified a challenge she wanted to discuss, and so we escaped the office for an evening of brainstorming. The challenge: TimeLine’s advocates (primarily board and company members) seemed to think of the work of marketing and development as completely separate efforts.

But we knew that they are not so disconnected. We have a shared goal — to earn more money for our organization. If one of us falls short, the other has to pick up the slack. We thought of each other as partners, and needed to show advocates that really, we’re all in this together.

Advocates understandably have fears about reaching out to their personal networks. “No one I know has money” or “I’m worried about asking people to give if they don’t want to” are familiar refrains. Ultimately, our goal was to alleviate those fears by making our shared strategy clear. We needed to educate our board and company members about how marketing and development are coordinated, complementary efforts, and ensure they understood that the organization had a plan to effectively — and carefully — cultivate their contacts.

Our idea, born that evening, was TimeLine’s Cultivation Pyramid process — a tool that has guided the company’s marketing and development work over the past two seasons. In many ways it formalized a process that exists either formally or informally in all organizations, rooted in the idea of moving individuals up a ladder, or pyramid, of increasing support. It is a clear framework that guides advocates’ cultivation efforts at all levels of engagement and facilitates open dialogue among everyone involved.

Our mantra going forward was going to be, “It’s all about cultivation.”

We know we’re not inventing the wheel with this. But the system we created helps our advocates leverage their networks and develop increasing support by taking a process that can be overwhelming and intangible and breaking it down into manageable steps.

The process is scalable and adaptable — applicable no matter your organization’s size or type. At its core, it should focus shared marketing/development efforts by managing the process in a more “mass-produced” way, while empowering more “personalized” cultivation with and by your advocates.

What do you need to implement a Cultivation Pyramid of your own? We’ve identified four elements:

  1. A commitment to cultivate! We’re not going to pretend this doesn’t take time, but what we’ve found is that it’s well worth it.
  2. Advocates in your organization who are willing to actively take part in the process.
  3. A customer-relationship-management database, ideally one that fully integrates ticketing and donor activities. Regardless of your database situation, find a way to maintain cultivation information for your advocates.
  4. A central Action Plan document in which cultivation plans can be maintained for each advocate.

And what are the components of the process?

Most obviously, a Cultivation Pyramid. You’ve likely seen or worked with something similar to this before — a pyramid showing increasing levels of support. At TimeLine, we have eight levels, moving from Prospect to Attendee to Subscriber to Casual Donor to Loyal Donor to Entry Level Major Donor to Advanced Level Major Donor to the ultimate goal for all cultivation: Bequest/Capital Campaign/Endowment Supporter. Your pyramid should be customized with categories appropriate to your organization and its goals.

Next for us is a set of Cultivation Guidelines. This is a list of all the different ways that advocates can encourage individuals to engage with the organization at each level on the pyramid. We include both regular institutional touch points (season brochure, production postcards, annual fund appeals, etc.) and personal advocate outreach. Once again, your guidelines should be customized to what your organization can do given its resources. At TimeLine we encourage advocates to do things like send a personal thank-you note whenever a contact connects to the organization (by attending a show, subscribing, making a donation, etc.), invite friends to attend a performance either preceded by or followed by a private reception with the artists, personally invite attendees to subscribe, send personal notes with donation appeal letters, and ensure that donors take advantage of the appreciation events available to them, among many other options.

The third component is Cultivation Lists. To participate in the process, all advocates must have, or commit to build, a list of contacts they wish to cultivate (we emphasize quality over quantity). These lists are maintained in our database, and each contact is noted as belonging to the appropriate category of the Cultivation Pyramid.

We also schedule regular meetings with our advocates to check in and strategize the next steps of their personal outreach, which provides motivation and accountability for all involved. And we allocate some resources to administrative support, to maintain cultivation lists in the database and assist in keeping action items moving forward.

Does this all work?

Overall, we’ve received very positive feedback from advocates about the Cultivation Pyramid process, and experienced myriad success stories. Our organization is having exponentially more conversations about cultivation, which leads to exponentially more action. Advocates are better educated about marketing and development strategy and regularly share success stories that inspire their peers. We’ve greatly increased the number of advocates hosting cultivation events, secured financial gifts we never would have considered soliciting, and discovered connections at foundations that helped us secure significant support. We continue to fine-tune as we gain momentum.

TimeLine’s Cultivation Pyramid process has brought our entire organization into alignment. Our advocates are armed with a deeper understanding of how every level of the pyramid feeds the next one, and how every level is valuable to the organization. Those with the most connection to our organization now have a tool that helps them make a true difference in building support, one person at a time.

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One response to “The Cultivation Pyramid: Moving Prospects to Lifelong Donors

  1. Great article! I agree that it makes total sense for marketing and development departments to be working together within an organization. It is the job of both departments to convey the mission, goals, and branding of a non-profit. If there is a disconnect in messaging between these sides of the organization, how can these things be communicated effectively to constituents?

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