What’s Wrong with Naming Donor Levels?

What’s Wrong with Naming Donor Levels?


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Before I get into today’s topic, I want to remind you that I am still looking for data from your new members in 2017. Next week, I’ll report out what I’ve learned to that point – the collective 5-year value of new members from as many land trust and other organizations as I can get. You can read the full request here: Time to Update the 5-Year Value Metric. And here is the request again in a nutshell:

  • Isolate the members and donors you have who made first gifts to your organization at some point – any point – during the calendar year 2017.
  • Now add up everything those donors gave to your organization – as a group – since then (1/1/2017 through 12/31/2021).
  • Send those two numbers to me – the number of donors and the total amount they have given. The email address is David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.


Note that I do not reveal the names of the organizations when I report on the data.

Thank you for being part of the research.



Think about this statement: I haven’t met too many people who couldn’t give $20 every month if they really wanted to. So $250 isn’t an unreasonable request to ask of just about everyone.


If you’re with me so far, think about this question: Why do we have so many named donor levels less than $250?

  • $20 Student
  • $35 Individual
  • $70 Family
  • $100 Steward
  • $150 Patron
  • $250 Benefactor


The organizations I meet that have this type of tiered system, don’t really differentiate between the levels other than the name itself. What’s the difference between Steward and Patron? Exactly $50.

I believe named donor levels are rooted in the idea that membership is transactional. You give a certain amount of money; you get something tangible in return. It’s a fee. A cost. Individual membership is $35. Family is $70. And students get a discount.

And what does one get for this fee? Usually just information. A newsletter. E-News. Invitations to engagement events. But you get the same information regardless of whether you are a Benefactor or a Sustainer or a Student. This realization has led many an organization down the path of providing graduated benefits. At almost any level this gets ridiculous. Donors won’t give $250 instead of $150 so they can get a set of nature cards.

It works for Nature Centers and Museums. It doesn’t work for land trusts. In fact, it gets in the way of fundraising.

I’d like to suggest a different path. One that is based on the idea that contributions are gifts. Gifts can be made monthly, annually, or one-time, and I suppose they could be made on some irregular schedule as well. And the size of the gift is completely determined by the giver.

On this path, there might still be many different levels, and we can use these levels in ask strings. For example: $35, $50, $100, $250, $365, $500, $1,000, $1,500, $2,500, $5,000, $10,000, and so on. Whatever they gave last year becomes the bottom end of this year’s ask string. Use the next two or three and “Other” and we’re good to go for our appeal or renewal requests.

But only two or three of these levels should be named. And the ones that are named are carefully branded to be attractive to those not giving at that level yet. I suggest naming and branding a group at around $250, and another at $1,000, and a third at $10,000, but the actual dollar amounts could easily vary by organization.

And what do they “get” in return? The answer is still information, but at each level we add a special members-only event. The event could be anything – most commonly field trips and dinner events – but it should be created to be consistent with the branding.


Everyone: Anyone willing to subscribe should be able to get the E-News for free. The E-News contains general information about organizational activities with links to the website for more information. Every E-News includes an option to make a gift or any size to support the activities.


Members: Anyone who makes a contribution of any size is a member (or annual donor, if you reject the word “member”). They get a paper newsletter at least four times in the following 12 months. (Only people who have made a gift within the past 12 months receive this newsletter.) Unless they have made arrangements to give monthly, they also get an appeal asking for monthly gifts within six weeks, an appeal asking for a “special” gift within six months, and renewal request beginning 10 months after their gift. This last request could include a series of reminders and could include email, phone calls, and/or additional letters. Each of these requests could offer an “ask string” including several levels – $35, $100, $250 and so on – but ONLY the branded levels would be named.


$250-Level Members: Anyone who makes a contribution of at least $250 joins a named and branded membership group. I encourage spending a little time with the naming: Conservation Club, Land Lovers, Bluffland Guardians – something evocative and fun. These folks already get a newsletter and E-news. Now we need to provide something a little different. A hike or bike or canoe event that only club members are invited to.

Remember the opening premise: that just about anyone could give $20/month – $250 – if they wanted to. So our job here is to make it attractive enough that they will want to. Some of that attraction will be related to the name itself and some to the event access that only members enjoy.

For the record, I am not wedded to the $250 number. $240 works just as well, as does $300. Whidbey Camano Land Trust in Washington has a Conservation Club that starts at $365. I love it!


Donor Circle at $1,000: Anyone who makes a contribution of at least $1,000 joins a named and branded membership group at that level as well. Again, naming creativity is encouraged – Earth Spirits, Voyageurs, Blazing Stars, Stewardship Society, and so on. Some organizations have named their $1,000 group after a local conservation hero – Warren Knowles Society, Margaret Powers Biggs Society, or similar. And once again, we need to provide something a little different – a members-only dinner event is classic.


Here’s the point: If we want people to give more we have to offer more. But not more tangible goods: T-shirts, mugs, notecards, calendars, and the like. Information, invitations, access, is enough.

And not at 12 different levels. Because we can’t brand them independently enough to make a real difference. Two or three or four levels are enough as long as they are very branded very differently from each other.


Afterthought: I cannot recommend “launching” one of these branded levels without a critical mass of at least eight donors already giving at that level. Most organizations already have that many at $250. Fewer have that many at $1,000, and even fewer at $10,000. After that, launching in a splashy way will attract new donors right away.


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 courtesy Pixabay


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  • Rebecca Dahl
    Posted at 09:42h, 23 February

    David, thanks for emphasizing monthly giving as a critical option (and glad to see so much receptivity to this idea!) As a “young person” (< 40 yo) I can't emphasize enough how important this is since there are definitely some generational differences in the way donors prefer to give. Monthly giving is the perfect "set it and forget it" and often you end up getting more than you would from a one-time donation.

    Speaking from personal experience, $5-10/month automatically charged to my credit card is much easier for me to fathom from a cash flow standpoint than trying to support all of my favorite groups with numerous one-time donations. It doesn't hurt that it means it's one more thing off my checklist too!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 12:40h, 23 February

      Rebecca, There are both plusses and minuses to monthly giving, but I definitely see your point. The place I would love to see it used more is in Board member giving. The great majority of Board members I meet are giving less than $500 and many are giving less than $100 to their land trusts. I don’t know of many Board members who couldn’t do $20 a month if they wanted to. That would be $240 right there and would make a huge difference.

      Thank you so much for your comment!


  • Pat Powell
    Posted at 14:59h, 22 February

    David, you indicated that, “Only people who have made a gift within the past 12 months receive this newsletter.” We have been giving newsletters to donors who haven’t given in a year and up to ~two years. That never seemed right to me but, at some point in time, by some “expert.” it was given to us as best practices. What do you suggest as an alert to them?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 19:26h, 22 February

      I’m quite sure I was the “expert” you were referring to. Consistency is overrated. I’m OK with “up to two years.” That allows for people who forget to give one year and renew the next as if nothing happened. The point isn’t the number of “grace” months. It’s the idea that the newsletter is for people who give money. And it’s not an infinite deal.

      Thank you for the question!


  • Emily Coolidge
    Posted at 08:40h, 22 February

    Great feedback on donor levels and how to make them more appealing to donors but not more challenging for the organization (in terms of what do you get at giving at different levels). We have been toying with offering different donors levels. We currently offer Conservation Circle at $1,000. I love the idea of $365. I also love giving at a monthly level. If someone gives $20 a month, they certainly can give $250 for the year. Great new ways of thinking about this topic. So looking forward to working with you in the next couple of months.
    Emily Coolidge, Chikaming Open Lands

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:35h, 22 February


      Thank you so much for the comment. I look forward to working with you as well!


  • David Lillard
    Posted at 07:31h, 22 February

    On the recommendation not to launch a branded level without at least 8 donors at that level, a follow-up question. Say, for example, you have 5 at a certain level. Say $5,000. What about a silent phase of getting 5 more to join so that you “launch” with 10 at that level?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 07:48h, 22 February

      David – That works. In my opinion, publishing a list of just 3 or 4 or 5 people doing something isn’t inspiring. A list of 20 might help me pay more attention, especially if I recognized someone on the list. Somewhere in between is a tipping point. That point is probably in the 8-12 range. BTW – this is one place where Board directors can be most helpful. Leadership in giving.

      Thank you so much for the question!