The donor pyramid is catching flak from smart fundraisers. Here. Here. And most recently here in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s article The Donor Pyramid May be Bad for Giving: Can We Do Better?

In the field of fundraising, which is both art and science, the donor pyramid has provided a theoretical structure to visualize the aspirational donor journey from grassroots donor to committed donor to major donor to legacy donor.

It’s a 50-year-old model with plenty of detractors.

Fundraising pioneer Roger Craver says the pyramid is a “three-dimensional-triangle lie” that doesn’t take into account lapsed donors and messy donor journeys.

Fundraising coach Claire Axelrod agrees. “Donors don’t follow a linear path. And they don’t fit into tidy boxes.”

In the Chronicle article, Ashely Budd, Cornell’s director of marketing operations for advancement and alumni affairs, argues the need for more flexibility to meet the donors’ needs, interests and lifestyle changes as they wax and wane.

Other critics note the flaw in the pyramid’s hierarchy where big gifts are the most valued, so big donors get the most attention.

Maybe the problem isn’t the pyramid, but us?

My beef with the pyramid is more aligned with Agents of Good partner Jen Love who says, “The fundamental flaw in the donor pyramid is that it’s about money.” Thanks to the model’s sole focus on gifts, charities put the financial exchange at the center of fundraising. Relationships take on a transactional feel and slight the many ways that generosity inspires people to contribute — as volunteers, as advocates, as ambassadors and partners.

This resonates with me. But is it really the model? I don’t think anything will change is we replace the pyramid with suggested alternative visuals like a vortex, EKG or flywheel. We must first reframe our entire profession as relationship building.

How do we build relationships with donors? How do we treat them like serious program partners? How do we listen to their concerns and passions? And how do we take action on what they tell us?

No model is going to solve this problem for us. We must infuse everything we do with humanity. That’s what philanthropy means after all “love of humanity.”