The Donor Lifecycle Map as a Useful Development Planning Tool

by Deborah Kaplan Polivy

The Donor Lifecycle Map, created by Sarah Clifton, is a terrific tool to use in creating a strategic fund raising plan. The focus of the Map is determining where a donor lies in terms of his/her lifetime giving to an organization, not on the size of any individual contribution or amount of personal assets. The Donor Lifecycle Map emphasizes relationship building as opposed to transactions and on moving a donor along from first gift to endowment. It can be used along with data about the size of any gift, but its major advantage, in my mind, is that it helps to organize the strategic plan according to the “next step” for the donor or category of donors. The question for staff and volunteers then becomes what must we do or what resources should we expend on this individual or group of people depending upon where on the Lifecycle Map they lie.

Currently, fund raising planning usually focuses on gift size and is often age-related – elderly who have made “major gifts” are often the targets of endowment planning while 25 to 35 year olds are the object of young leadership. The goal for people in between is just increasing the annual contribution.

The Lifecycle Map focuses on the number of years of giving and therefore is really a measure of commitment. It changes the orientation from the organization’s needs to the donor’s, and from current needs to support over time. Therefore, in campaign planning, if we use the Donor Lifecycle Map as an organizational tool, we shall need to focus on and design mechanisms or opportunities to sustain the donor’s support for and interest in an organization over time. I like to think about “matching” cultivation tools, such as events, newsletters, face to face meetings (not necessarily solicitations but just visits), rides to places if necessary, etc. to where the donor falls on the Lifecycle Map.

The Donor Lifecycle Map captures visually the effort to increase the number of opportunities a donor has to support an organization over his or her lifetime by illustrating how a donor advances through the life cycle from first gift to last – the endowment. The Donor Lifecycle Map demonstrates how the donor interacts with the organization when the latter focuses on maintaining the support of an individual over the long term by means of an assortment of fund raising efforts.

Using the Lifecycle Map, the focus changes to the individuals as not only distinct sectors but also discreet challenges, i.e. how do we get people in the door, how do we move them from first gift to second and then keep them so that they become multi-year active donors, and then how, from the latter group, do we identify who might be the appropriate candidates for the major or stretch gift and then endowment gift.

The cultivation tools that we have available, when donors are thought about in this way, can then be sorted out in terms of suitability for the various stages of involvement. Moreover, until we consider the multi-year active donor, the amount of the gift does not play a major role. (The size of the gift might “trigger” a distinct cultivation tool such as a personal telephone call thanking the individual for the extraordinary gift – but then again, depending on the size of the cohort, should we be thanking all first time donors for their gifts?)

Clifton proposes that the “Lifecycle Map” is a useful concept for visualizing how donors interact with an organization and it provides, in my opinion, a helpful framework for planning and executing the cultivation process. And while I see the Lifecycle Map as being directly related to increasing the number of opportunities we produce for donors in relation to their financial interactions with our organizations, if we concentrate on not only bringing in new donors, but also retaining them, the number of contributors involved with an organization will most likely increase over time. Moreover, more money will also be raised because, once again, the focus will be on keeping individuals moving along the lifecycle and shifting them from “multi-year active” to “major or stretch gift.”

Even in that latter group, donor lists need to be “massaged” carefully because the length of time of gift giving sometimes can be a more important factor in determining the endowment candidate than the size of the contribution. In other words, someone who has donated for 20 years or more, notwithstanding the amount of the gift, may be the best prospect for an endowment because of the commitment of the individual. This framework for thinking forces us to ask which cultivation tools should be applied to groups in each Lifecycle Map sector and in effect helps us manage our resources efficiently as well as strategically.

Think about first time donors. We always ask ourselves how do we get people who have never given to us into the door? We often use fund raising letters, events or telemarketing for this particular group. Once we get the gift, what do we do next? Usually forget about the individual until the next year. The question that we need to ask ourselves before the following year is what do we do to ensure a second year gift? We shall have to create a strategic plan for first time donors – either as a group or individually depending upon the person.

Let’s say that a first time donor attends an event at the behest of a third party or because of a relationship with an honoree. Event 360 has published a wonderful paper suggesting that in order to keep such a person involved and become an ongoing “organizational donor”, the event “participant” that attracted the person in the first place must be considered in creating the strategy of moving that first donor to someone who is “personally passionate” about the mission of the organization or, using the Donor Lifecycle Map construct, to a “second year donor”. This is a step in the process of not only planning the strategy to get someone in the door, but keeping him or her involved. (2)

The major gift strategy is another piece of the puzzle. Organizations have a multitude of donors who have contributed over a period of time which, using the Donor Lifecycle Map as a guide, would be three years or more. The people within this group give at all different levels and usually emphasis is on “top down” – the ones giving the most money to the least. However, if this section of the donor pool is focused upon, it could be divided into categories of giving from the top down or vice versa. Different strategies might be developed for each of the various levels. As a matter of fact, if the people at the bottom were thought about as a distinct group, these could be candidates for endowment giving. They could be cultivated in ways totally separate from other donors – and with more than just an annual letter asking for a renewal of a gift.

The fund raising strategy for this group of individuals might be considered as a whole – they might receive newsletters, annual gift appeals, invitations to events, etc. – but some might need more cultivation – notwithstanding where on the gift giving pyramid they may lie. So, while a major donor might be invited to an event with minimum gift attached, the donor at the very bottom who has contributed for dozens of years might be invited to visit the organization or a personal call may be made to thank the individual for his or her ongoing support. After some information is collected during the call from questions like, “Mrs. Cohen, please tell me why you have donated to us for all of these years”, the next cultivation tool may be a personal visit to acknowledge the donor face to face. Other devices such as luncheon dates, tours of the agency, offers to drive an individual to some event, etc. may result in that personal relationship that results in an endowment gift and maybe even an increased annual gift.(3)

I finally persuaded one charity with which I worked to review the names and giving histories of all contributors. As a result, we came across two women who had each donated $25 annually for many years and not only did they share the same last name, but also address. Had we not made a serious effort to study the data, we never would have noticed this fact. These women were obviously related – mother and daughter or two sisters. After a little research, we found that they were twins who were about to turn 80 years old.

We asked someone who knew them to make an introduction and go with us to solicit an endowment gift. Our strategy was to ask for the gift in honor of their birthday and to celebrate with a party!

When visiting with them, we learned from posing a few questions that neither had married and each had worked as a secretary for a New York Stock Exchange company – one for General Electric and the other for what is now, after many mergers, Bank of America. The women owned a considerable amount of stock in the respective companies and were open to a deferred gift wherein they would donate the appreciated shares, take an income stream, and leave the remainder upon their deaths to the charity.

Because these women were considered “small donors”, no one had paid attention to them or anyone else at the lower levels of the donor lists. With some effort at cultivation – inviting the women to the institution, sending them a newsletter, preparing personal thank you notes, visiting them on a regular basis, etc. – a stronger case for support might have been made and understood by the women. Had there been an ongoing strategic cultivation plan for not only “major” donors, but for everyone, the representatives of the organization might not have suddenly “dropped in” after so many years of never contacting the women – except through the annual fund raising letter. However, by the time we actually did reach them, one was suffering from dementia and we were not able to close the gift. Maybe there is a bequest in their respective wills as a result of our efforts.

Sarah Clifton, the originator of the Lifecycle Map, claims that it is a useful concept for visualizing how donors interact with an organization. She explains that the “primary purpose of this tool is to show the correlation of donor value with engagement – both of which, of course, should be growing” and she refers to this process as the “donor journey.”

I think the Donor Lifecycle Map also provides an extraordinary framework for thinking about and executing the strategic planning process for fund raising. If we make a list of our cultivation tools and match them to the whereabouts of the individual donor on the Lifecycle Map, we might be able to put together a very effective strategy for increasing our number of contributors and receipts on an annual basis including endowment gifts.

Or, as a colleague explained, “if you always think about STEWARDING the last gift, then the emphasis is on TELLING the donor what that gift made possible. If you think about CULTIVATING the next gift, the emphasis shifts to what their generosity will do in the FUTURE. It also invites conversation versus presentation. A donor might not have much to say about what you have done, but will probably have lots to say about your organization’s hopes and dreams.”(4)

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, an independent fund raising consultant. Her website is

2 Event 360, “4 Steps to Converting Event Donors to Organizational Donors,” May 23, 2012.
3 George Kessler, former Director of the Endowment Department of the Council of Jewish Federations (now Jewish Federations of North America), used to tell the story about he regularly invited an elderly gentleman to join him for an ice cream soda. The man left a major endowment to the organization for which George was working at the time.
4 Barbara Maduell, The Collins Group, e-mail, June 21, 2012.