You have no idea who is in your audience.

Small agencies in particular often make the mistake of focusing in on a couple of big donors, or of looking for angels, or of trying to get that big grant that will solve their problems. But just as important to your effort are all those $10 and $25 and $50 and $100 donors.

The World Give Day statement says “small scale donors are the backbone of philanthropy,” but I prefer to think of them as the base of the pyramid, or the first step on the ladder.Every now and then in your career, you will find an angel. Someone will drop in out of the blue and give you their first check with a whole lot of zeros on it. But much more common is the workhorse donor who turns out to be your savior, friend, and best advocate.

Twenty years of giving
At one agency I worked for, I was trying to get the board to honor the most important donors. They immediately focused on a donor who’d given two fairly major grants over the course of about 5 years. To get these grants, the agency had invested thousands of dollars, both real and in board and senior staff time. The donor was high maintenance and constantly threatening to take his gift and go home. I went through the donor list and discovered that we had a donor who had given us nearly a quarter of a million dollars in gives and gets over his 20 years of involvement. He’d been critical in introducing us to other small and major donors, he always bought a couple of tables at the gala, and always made his guests bid on the auction. And he’d been flying entirely under the radar, because he seldom wrote a check for more than $250. He just wrote a whole lot of them.

Turned out we had a lot of donors like that. Hundred-dollar donors who were worth tens of thousands of dollars over the course of their association.

You’re in the will
She only gave $10 a year so that she could get her donor benefits. But your Executive Director sent her birthday cards, talked to her at events, and passed on some coupons that we couldn’t use once. When she dies, you get a check for $10,000. This has happened at every agency I have ever worked for. You’re in someone’s will, and you don’t know it. If you’ve got a donor who’s been giving for more than ten years, be nice to them.

You’re a charity for god’s sake
I don’t care if you’re the Red Cross, or the Met. You have an obligation to the tax payers who support you. And as we’ve recently learned, folks, most of the people paying taxes in the U.S. aren’t the rich or the corporations. It’s all those little guys paying income tax and then giving you, with your 501-c-3 designation, another twenty-five bucks out of the goodness of their hearts. Small donors and little guys make you possible.

Nobody’s going to give you $5,000 the first time out
Or almost no one. Gifts grow. Involvement grows. Ignore the small donors today at your peril, because they are your major donors tomorrow.

The giving pyramid
We all know the formula: 20% of your donors will be responsible for 70% of your income. Of course, the obverse is that 80% of your donors will be responsible for the other 30%. Can you really afford to take 30% of your gift income for granted?

“This post is part of a blog series inspired by World Give Day and hosted by GiveForward.  To find other posts in this series please visit or follow the hashtag #giveday.”