Most organizations we work with squander many of their most precious fundraising resources – stewardship content created for the purpose of delighting donors. I’m talking about the detailed updates, strategy memos, webinars, insider emails, phone calls with the ED and other cultivation resources.

I ascribe this waste to what I call the ‘three-class airplane’ fallacy. Here’s what I mean:

The Three-Class Airplane Fallacy.

Say you’re going on a trip. Airplane travel being insanely expensive these days, you opt for economy. It’s a long flight and the plane has three sections: first class, business class, and economy. You board the plane. First you pass through first class, which looks like everyone gets their own sofa and miles of space between rows. Then there’s business, where everyone has a Barcalounger and a flat-screen TV bigger than the one in your living room.

During the flight, the flimsy curtain is drawn between the classes, but you can still see the champagne being poured and the meals served on real plates and the hot towels being passed around. You get a cramped seat and crying babies.

The Non Profit Development Three-Class Airplane Fallacy

Development departments tend to use a ‘three class airplane’ model in allocating stewardship resources. Major donors only get the phone briefings, the handwritten thank-you notes, the exclusive webinars and other ‘special’ content. Midlevel donors get some but not all of those. And grassroots donors typically get none of it. In our work with midlevel and low-dollar donors we regularly discover amazing but jealously guarded content created for major donors. Heaven forfend it should be available for all.

With few exceptions, the 3-class mentality makes zero sense here. Putting aside the question whether major donors care that they are the exclusive recipients of emailed or mailed content (our research suggests for the most part they don’t), no one who received the special briefing memo or the strategy memo from the ED or the invite to a phone briefing sees who else is getting it. You don’t see or experience the exclusivity. The result is that stewardship content that is created at considerable expense does a fraction of the good it might otherwise do to boost overall retention and donor satisfaction.

The obvious arguable exception to this is live events that are small by design. The tea parties, salons, and other events that depend on small size for their impact are examples. But if it’s mailed, emailed, or online there’s little value gained by withholding it from all donors.

Lately the whole idea of the donor pyramid, the fundraising metaphor that supports three-class cultivation, is under some scrutiny these days. Let’s start shifting to post-pyramid philanthropy by more widely sharing the good stuff.