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All the fundamentals of fundraising theory can be explained in three shapes: the spiralthe web, and the cycle. I always start with these three shapes when I first sit down with a client to explain good fundraising methods. 

So let’s pretend that you are a client. For full impact, put yourself in the emotional space of needing to raise money, and not knowing where to start. Do you feel it? Do you feel the stress?

Good. Now relax, because with these three shapes I am about to explain, you will master the most essential aspects of fundraising theory. If you can remember these three shapes, then you can always figure out what to do as a fundraiser for your organization.

The Three Shapes

  • The Spiral is the journey you take with each donor
  • The Web is the way you form a nurturing community
  • The Cycle is the way you think about growth and plans for your org

At the root of this, the most important thing to remember is that raising money is not really about money: It’s about cultivating energy.

Your job is to cultivate and grow loving energy for your organization. That's it. The money is just a manifestation of this love.

These shapes are simple representations of how that energy gets grown and shared.

The First Shape: The Spiral

One thing you might notice about these shapes is that none are strictly linear. There is always a back-and-forth, and all the reasons for that will become more evident with each shape, starting with the Spiral: the map of each individual’s journey with you and your organization.

The First Impression

The very outer point of the spiral is an individual’s first encounter with your brand. We’ll talk more about brand in other writings, but for now, just think of it as your core promise.

This first encounter could be an online ad, an email, a sign on the street, word of mouth, etc. There is an initial impression – hopefully positive – and hopefully they advance to the next step.

The First Experience

The next step is the individual’s first encounter with programming or a product from Your Org. For example, they read an article, see a show, have an experience. This sometimes occurs at the same time as the next step.

A First Transaction

This is the moment when money first changes hands for any reason. For example, they buy a ticket to a show, or even a drink at an event. Many people will never progress past this stage, and that is okay. What comes next is a major shift, however, and needs to be recognized as such.

The First Contribution

When this happens, the customer or audience member has become a donor. They aren’t just purchasing a service, object, or entertainment. A contribution sends a very different message. It is not a purchase, but rather an investment in your mission.

This is a major shift, because this may be the first time that Your Org really becomes aware of the donor’s presence. Provided that the give was not made anonymously, you now have a name for this person, and you have joined them on this path that they have already been on with Your Org.

From here on, you will play a more active role with them along this path, and the other three shapes of fundraising theory will help you know what that looks like as time goes on.

The Next Contribution

You’ve done something right when people reach this stage. Your outreach has retained a donor’s interest, and they have given again. Perhaps they have even given more this time.

At every step in this Spiral, the number of people who progress further grows smaller, but that’s okay. Every bit of support counts, not just in a fiscal sense, but in an emotional sense, too. Individuals who continue to give are showing a continued belief in your mission, and watching a critical mass of supporters grow over time is priceless.

The SAPU Gift

What’s a SAPU gift? Besides being fun to say, it is a monetary gift that actually requires a deliberate decision on the part of the donor. SAPU stands for Significant Alternative Potential Use.

For some folks it’s $100, and for others it’s $10,000, and for some this number is much higher. It’s a quantity that, for that donor, indicates a significant commitment to your cause, because those funds could be allocated elsewhere. They could go to a different project, or toward personal enrichment. Instead, they are making the choice (even a bit of a sacrifice, perhaps) to support you.

Pay attention to the SAPU gift. It’s a strong sign of their long-term engagement.

Remember: we're here to celebrate energy, not money.

So no matter the amount, a SAPU gift should be celebrated.

The Donor Joins the Board

It’s a huge step when a donor joins the board. Even donors who make a SAPU gift do not often proceed to this stage. Time is always more precious than money, and donors at this level know this very well. (Learn this lesson about time well. It’s a huge advantage when you respect people’s time. We’ll definitely be talking about this more later..) 

Not everyone who is an avid donor is cut out for board membership. I will discuss boards a lot in other posts, because boards are as complex as they are vital. For now, let’s just remember that it’s a big deal when donors decide to become so invested in your cause that they personally become identified with your work.

They Become a Board Officer

When a donor becomes a board officer or committee chair, they are showing more than an interest in involvement. They are building the legacy and future of the org with you, and this becomes part of their legacy, too. Again, we can’t understate the importance of this, and you as a fundraiser cannot take this for granted.

They are really in it with you, now. People at this level are especially involved with the other two shapes of fundraising theory: the Web and the Cycle. We’ll get to them shortly, but there is one more step on this journey.

The Final Step: The Will

This donor has gone all the way with you. From that first impression, that first experience with your org, they have taken this journey with you along the Spiral. Your work and your org has become part of their legacy, too, and to sustain that, they leave some of their wealth to ensure that the work continues.

This is, of course, the rarest sort of donor, but it speaks to the power of what we’re actually doing here as fundraisers. There is nothing crass or transactional about this: The nature of the bequest is a testament to how life-changing and life-affirming this work can be.

Fundraising Theory Done Right Honors The Journey

This journey along the spiral doesn’t happen automatically. You invite people to join, and then you  invite them to take each step with you. 

Each time that someone takes a step, respond with a loving act of gratitude.

Thank them in a loving way that is about appreciating their genuine support for your work.

This fundraising theory is similar to a practice known in the fundraising field as Moves Management. I do not like that term, or its implication, which sounds more like a hustle (i.e. moving people along impersonally) rather than moving people on a deeper, emotional, and philosophical level. They are taking this journey WITH you, not FOR you. 

That’s why we always respond with a loving act of gratitude. We never take their involvement for granted, even though the personal benefits are (ideally) mutual in the end.

Don’t Be Afraid To Invite

A lot of people don’t like to “ask” for things. They don’t like to feel needy, or like a burden to others. When we really start to understand this spiral, however, we realize that we are inviting more than we are asking.

The right people will want to be on this journey with you. Don't let your timidity exclude them.

Asking and thanking brings people closer to you. That is the core of individual fundraising, and the spirit of it gives confidence and meaning to everyone you invite to join the journey with you, even in the marketing that may be that first impression for people you haven’t met yet.

I know that clients are getting good at this when they ask “Where is she in the spiral with us?” or “What move might they be ready for?” The answers in those cases are very individual, which is how it should be. In the next shape, the Web, we’ll start to talk about how the community that you build through this work drives this personal engagement.