The Science of the Giving Ladder

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Author: Track 15


When it comes to passing the baton from your call-to-action to an actual donation, try this simple but effective tactic: a giving ladder.

Your giving ladder offers donors tangible, bite-sized examples of how their gifts support your mission.

  • $50 can feed a family for a week
  • $1,000 leads to clean water for a small village

Not only are you adding value for your donor, but you are taking the reins on the amount of their gift. When you suggest specific giving amounts, you guide the donor’s expectations.

You are also gathering data on what your donors are capable of giving. Why settle for a $25 write-in gift if your donor actually has the capacity to give $100?

Using these steps to create your giving ladder and you will have donors excited to give in no time!

Identify your trends

Step 1: Identify Your Trends

Use your donor database to find these numbers:

  • Average size of all gifts received (even better to find the average gift size of a similar campaign)
  • Average size of the lower 25% of gifts
  • Average size of the upper 25% of gifts

Use the average lower 25% gift size as the smallest giving level on your giving ladder, overall average gift size as the second smallest level, and average upper 25% gift size as one of the largest levels.

You can intersperse other giving levels in between, depending on your budget (see step 2) to create a complete giving ladder.

A good rule of thumb is to not exceed five options in a giving ladder, as any more can be overwhelming to the donors.

Step 2: Look at your budget to add value.

Step 2: Look at your budget to add value.

What are your nonprofit’s key programs? Can you choose a variable (i.e. number of people served or length of time) to guide your number crunching?

For example, if one program costs $100,000 to serve 500 people for one year, then it costs:

  • $200 to serve one person for one year (manipulate number of people to change giving level),
  • $8,300 to keep the program running for one month (manipulate length of time),
  • $2,000 to serve 250 people for six months (manipulate both number of people and length of time).

A simple alternative is to link a giving level to a specific asset: a meal, a transportation bus, or even a building (as with capital campaigns).

A word of caution: Tread lightly when it comes to restricted funds. Unless you plan to earmark every gift for the value listed, consider adding the following language: “can provide,” “supports,” or “leads to.” You can provide value that is truthful and compelling without boxing in your spending.

Step 3: Arrange your giving levels.

Step 3: Arrange your giving levels.

The best practice for constructing your giving ladder is to start with the highest gift level first to condition the donor’s giving.

If you feel that your highest gift amount would be off-putting to your smaller donors, consider creating two (or more) giving pages:

  • One for smaller donors with lower giving levels
  • One for major donors with higher giving levels

You want to avoid the scenario of a major donor, with the potential to give $5,000, laying eyes on the $25 option first. If that happens, they are conditioned to think small with their giving!

Again, it’s important to have data on your donors capacity so that they are directed to giving levels that make sense for their capacity.

It is also best to include an option for donors to write in a donation amount. Maybe your giving levels did not capture your donors capacity; there is no reason to exclude them by not offering a write in amount.

Step 4: Bring your giving ladder to life!

Step 4: Bring your giving ladder to life!

Whether you create the ladder for a specific fundraising campaign or general annual giving, you can now incorporate it into your giving page, marketing, and personal donor asks.

Giving level values make great content for email and social marketing and may be the linchpin in your major donor meetings. Challenge your marketing team (or yourself) to:

  • Find stories and photos that illustrate the giving level values
  • Send thank you notes that are specific to the level a donor chose
  • Add any innovative components unique to your mission to ramp up your marketing efforts

Run wild with the creative opportunities within your giving ladder!

To reiterate, your giving ladder will allow you to identify donor trends that aid in determining capacity and appropriate ask amounts. They also add value for donors by showing them exactly what their gift can contribute to. Giving ladders condition gift amounts in hopes of avoiding a $25 gift from a $200 donor.

Happy giving!


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Track15 envisions a world where nonprofit leaders can focus on their mission. As fundraising consultants, we offer a wide range of services that build trust and excitement, including: major donor cultivation, annual giving campaigns, database services, grant writing, and event planning.

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