Benefactors vs. Patrons, and Other Things Getting in Our Way

Benefactors vs. Patrons, and Other Things Getting in Our Way


26 April 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Quick – make the case for me about why I should join your land trust organization as a Benefactor instead of a Patron.

Or a Steward instead of a Caretaker.

Or even a Family instead of a Friend.


Many land trusts struggle with this question and reach for “membership benefits” as one possible answer. If you join at one level, you get some stuff. And if you join at another level, you get some more stuff.

But is anyone really motivated to give more in order to get more? And if not, why are named giving levels so pervasive?


I have another theory: I believe we use these names because asking someone to become a Caretaker, or join at the Caretaker level, is easier for us than asking someone to consider a membership gift this year of $250.

Easier for us.

Not more effective. Not best practice. Not even good fundraising.

Just more convenient. Easier. For us.


I suggest that most of us could jettison the entire concept, and just ask people for a membership gift.

But let’s not stop there. Why do we offer four “levels” less than $100 ? Do we really need to offer “Student” memberships at $10, and then other named levels at $25, $50, $75, and $100? What would happen if we just said: “Please consider making a $50 membership gift to the Land Trust.” And then offered $50 and Other?

Or how about: “Please consider making a $50 membership gift to the Land Trust.” And then offering $50, $100, $250, and Other?

Somebody (with good baseline data), please try one of those two ideas and let me know how the results compare with the more standard ask string.


The common denominator behind all of these named ask strings is that they lead to transactional thinking. To get someone to give more we need to offer more.

And transactional thinking works against us in fundraising.

Membership is a gift. And it should always be a gift. The denomination of ANY gift is up to the giver. And the way you show appreciation for gifts is not with coffee mugs and tote bags. The way you show appreciation is by saying thank you.


I regularly recommend NOT naming levels, unless and until you can do so in a significantly branded way. For example, naming a $1,000 membership the Bluffland Guardians, or the Yellow Blaze Society, or the Katherine Ordway Associates. I found one recently that I liked a lot – the $365 Club.

And I regularly recommend that there be NO minimum level of gift that qualifies for membership. If you ask for $50 and they give $5, they should be considered a member. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that you ask for $5. I’m advocating that you recognize all gifts as membership gifts. (And then send renewal notices a year later of course.)


And what should they get for their membership gift? Engagement. And more so their engagement with you than your engagement with them – E-news, paper newsletters, invitations to field trips and volunteer work parties.


Now let’s revisit the opening question: why I should join your land trust organization for $250 instead of $100? Deeper engagement. I care more because I’m involved more. And I give more because I care more. Your mission is my mission.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Bob Richards courtesy of


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  • Judy Anderson
    Posted at 21:30h, 26 April

    I think that the naming of levels comes from the tradition of listing donors in reports/newsletters–and wanting to provide a way to segment, Then, there are those who have thought that by providing “student” and “family” and “elder” people would give at that level–and NOT at a lower level. Instead, as we all know this holds people back. If you are going to name levels, recognize that it is for listing purposes–and use descriptors that don’t box people out. Avoid “family, friend, senior, student, etc.” let people find the level they feel is appropriate based upon the inspiration you have created and the change they want to see. You also mention premiums–that, too, is a concept that has roots in a different place: the concept that benefits are “things” rather than “change.” If we stop with the concept that different levels get different benefits, and instead realize that people want (crave) being valued, respected, and heard–then we can be both inclusive and impactful.

  • Jim Perry
    Posted at 13:55h, 26 April

    The whole idea of “premiums” at different levels has increased due to public television. And since we are all PBS supporters … I believe for the most part those who support conservation organizations are NOT interested in premiums, and the whole issue of named levels of support is probably not warranted. David, I would like to see a post about the best ways to increasing the NUMBERS of supporters.

  • David Lillard
    Posted at 09:02h, 26 April

    Agreed! Although watching a board argue over naming levels has a certain sit com value. It’s like an episode of The Office.

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 08:06h, 26 April

    These are all practices we follow and find effective. Thanks for the reassurance David.

  • Emily R Coolidge
    Posted at 08:02h, 26 April

    YES! Getting wrapped up in donor levels and benefits to those levels is time consuming. No one truly gives for the stuff. I do still love the idea of $365 and then one higher level at $1000 or maybe even higher. The idea of getting better at friend-raising and ultimately cultivating to create a donor base that is passionate about our mission (and this is why they choose to give) should be our task. Great thoughts. Thank you.