Screening Your Donors

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

How do you find greater wealth among your current donors, or even find new donors? You screen for them of course!

Screening helps you determine which donors to focus on. You see, most people only keep enough in cash and checking accounts to pay for their current expenses, including charitable contributions. But large donors make major gifts from assets. So you have to uncover the true giving potential of donors; therefore, you must screen your current donors to learn more about them.

You can conduct the screening yourself by assembling a Screening Taskforce that meets from time to time as needed, or you can contract with an outside professional fundraising service to do it. Screening is usually done electronically these days, but the following steps describe the in-house, non-electronic process. These steps are usually taken AFTER electronic screening is done, when you share the results with the Screening Taskforce.

The Screening Taskforce is usually comprised of select board members, staff, development committee members, leading givers (those who give $1,000 or more annually), and organization volunteers who have broad community connections.

It’s crucial to start with a preliminary list, so prepare a list of your top 10-30 percent of donors or other prospects that you feel might have the potential to make a major gift. List the giving history of these people, along with their largest gift and most recent gift, if known. Provide a column for each of these three key aspects: linkages, ability, and interest. Be sure to mark the sheets “Highly Confidential.”

I’m going to talk about the three key aspects in a second. But first note that there are three ways to conduct the screening: the open, closed, and private methods.

Now let’s put it all together.


To hold an open screening session, you invite the Taskforce to assemble in a quiet room and begin with a brief explanation of the screening process, its importance to the organization, and why they were selected to help with this task. Following your explanation, distribute copies of the list and discuss each name to determine the best linkage—i.e., who knows this person best, or would be the best person to make the “ask”? Often there will be several linkages, and the task of this group is to determine the best solicitation team.

Next, try to determine ability to give—how much could this person give to the organization if so motivated? Without revealing confidential information, the screening committee members can “guesstimate” the person’s net worth and/or income.

Then try to determine interest in giving. Does this person know of your organization? Is this a cause s/he’s been known to support? Is there a specific program that would interest him or her?

As each name is discussed, complete the form with the linkages, ability, and interest level assigned. The advantage of this method is discussion and consensus; the disadvantage is that some people feel uncomfortable discussing prospects, or, worse, don’t know the people on the list.


The closed screening session is similar to the open, except instead of discussing each prospect among the group, participants in the session are asked to complete the answers to the linkage, ability, and interest sections to the best of their own knowledge. Each person works independently without discussion among the group.

Lists are then collected, and the person in charge reviews the lists and determines the consensus of opinion. The advantage of this method is that people often feel freer to comment on prospects if they’re doing it confidentially; the disadvantage is that once the lists are collected, there’s a lot of guesswork and perhaps follow-up to clarify what a screener has written. Without the open discussion, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out why one person thought a prospect had the ability to give $1 million and another suggested $10,000. Further prospect research should solve that problem.


The private screening session is held one-on-one with a staff member and a Screening Taskforce member. The list is reviewed with each of the members of the Taskforce one-at-a time in the privacy of their office or home.

It’s easier to schedule people at their convenience than to get them all together in one room. The discussion takes place solely between the staff member and the Taskforce member. The disadvantages are that it takes a lot more staff time to meet with screening committee members individually and, again, the lack of open discussion could require follow-up to clarify major differences of opinion.

Regardless of the method selected, you want to be sure to encourage screeners to add their own names to the list. Most importantly, seeing the list will jog people to think of other potential donors for your organization. Encourage that as much as you can.

Whichever method you use, you most likely will uncover some hidden “stars” among your current donors and identify new prospects along the way.

How have you screened your donors? If so, what was the result? What was the impact of the screening process on your fundraising? Please let Laurence know by posting at our blog.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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