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Beyond Giving: A New Way to Understand the Donor Lifecycle

5 min read
December 18, 2023
Shannon Whitehead headshot
Shannon Whitehead
Content Strategist, Neon One
Aerial view of a river

Have you ever picked up a hobby—like knitting or learning to play a new instrument—only to lose interest and put it back down? You get disengaged for a while and then, maybe a few years later, you come back to it. The donor lifecycle often operates much the same way!

Donors go through stages, too: One month, they’re active, and the next they’re inactive. At first, they’re regularly giving, and then they become a lapsed donor. For a time, they’re attending every event until, suddenly, they’re completely disengaged. 

You want to prevent as many donor lapses as possible and move most donors from being connected to super engaged. Understanding the donor lifecycle allows you to effectively communicate with donors no matter which stage they’re in.

However, what many in the nonprofit sector know as the donor lifecycle (you know, that pyramid we’re all used to seeing) doesn’t cover all the bases. In this article, you’ll get a quick overview of a new way to visualize the donor lifecycle and tips to help you engage each donor on their unique journey with your organization.

What Is the Donor Lifecycle?

The donor lifecycle is a tool that helps organizations visualize the stage a donor relationship is in, starting with the donor’s very first gift.

Every relationship, from friendship to marriage, goes through stages. The donor-nonprofit relationship is no different. Every organization interprets the donor lifecycle a little differently, and each donor’s lifecycle is different. 

In a perfect world, a donor moves smoothly through a typical cycle: They discover your cause, make their first gift (perhaps setting up a recurring donation), get more connected with the organization by becoming an advocate, volunteering, etc., and finally, continue to engage with the nonprofit over time.

The process isn’t always (read: Is hardly ever) this linear. More often than any of us would like, the donor lifecycle comes to an abrupt end when a donor lapses. It’s possible to re-engage a lapsed donor, but they may not ever give again. 

This variance in the process flow is why—no matter what you do—it’s impossible to move every single donor through the same neat, predetermined stages. You’re not doing anything wrong; people are unique, and therefore the way they interact with your organization will vary every time.

Donor Lifecycle Stages

There are donor lifecycle stages you can count on, though, so continue reading to learn more! But get ready: We’ll encourage you to look at the donor lifecycle less like a linear timeline and more like how a river ebbs and flows. 

The donor lifecycle as a river with various donor types
The donor lifecycle as a river with various donor types

Not your typical donor lifecycle chart, huh? We’ve found visuals like the donor pyramid to be obsolete and view the donor lifecycle stages as more of a river with a natural ebb and flow.


Donor acquisition is the process of finding and converting new donors for your nonprofit. This stage kicks off the beginning of a donor relationship, where the donor gets to know your organization, develops an initial connection to your cause, and decides to give.

As some newly acquired donors inevitably become lapsed donors after their first gift, the acquisition stage sets the stage for future engagement and donor retention.


By providing a great donor experience during acquisition and onboarding, you can help donors build a deeper connection with your mission that propels them to continue donating. 

As you can see in our version of the donor lifecycle chart above, the connection stage flows into the different donor types and volunteers that make up your supporter base. 

There are various donor stages and activities in the donor lifecycle, but they all flow into one another.

Donor Groups

Once a donor is connected, it’s understandable to cross your fingers and hope that they’ll become a recurring donor or even a major donor. That would be wonderful! 

But your pool of general donors—those whose donation may not be large or recurring—is too important to be underestimated.

General donors may eventually flow into the recurring donors category. Major donors will overlap with legacy donors. Recurring donors could become general donors again. General donors may drift away into lapsed donor territory, become renewed donors in time, and then general donors again! 

Our point is this: The traditional donor lifecycles and donor timelines aren’t universal, the donor lifecycle stages will flow into each other, and that’s perfectly normal.

Nurturing Donor Relationships at Each Lifecycle Stage

Nonprofit software like Neon CRM are valuable tools in managing donor relationships, automating communications, planning events, and more. 

Neon CRM was created with nonprofits and a relationship-focused approach in mind, helping you lose the time-consuming manual work but keep the type of personal touch that retains donors. 

Alongside your donor management technology, you’ll need a strategy for how you’ll nurture those relationships. Check out our in-depth guide to donor management below for all the details!

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