Donor Screening

Donor Screening


18 August 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’m working on refining a Fundraising Planning Seminar for land trusts in Colorado, and I created a Five-Step process.

Actually, it’s a process that has five steps assuming you are already clear about the goals! (See also Start with the Goal!)

Step 1 in the process was to list all of your donors. All of them. Each decider.

  • Every Board Member
  • Every Giving Leader
    ($250 and more)
  • Every Foundation
  • Every Business


And for each person – each giving decider – answer this question: “Why will they say yes?”

Now make an engagement plan for each one.

You will quickly see the problem. There are too many people to consider each one individually.


So do the best you can. Do as many as you can.

Do some………….


The process of deciding who to work with individually, and who to lump together and treat as a group is called “donor screening” – starting with a big list and using some sort of criteria to make it into a smaller and more manageable list.

In general, there are three variables you will want to consider: The donors’ relative capacity to give, the way they see your land trust as a recipient of their philanthropy, and whether someone in your organization has a personal connection.

The interesting thing about those three variables is that two of them are somewhat in your control. At least in the sense that you can work on changing the current circumstance.

That’s why most people start by screening for capacity – the one variable you won’t be able to change.

I’m NOT suggesting that we’re just looking for rich people. OK, so that’s mostly true. If we were Harvard, and setting our sights on raising $6.5 billion, we’d be looking for rich people.

But we’re not. We’re land trusts working on land conservation in our communities. And just because someone is wealthy doesn’t translate into them being philanthropic. In addition to knowing a bit about how much money donors may have, we also need to know a bit about whether they give it away.

This is the reason I’ve been relatively sour on “wealth screening.” See also Is Wealth Screening Worth the Money?

(Actually, I like DonorSearch a lot precisely because it includes information about both political and philanthropic giving, and at a fraction of the cost. Full disclosure: I have a master account and many of my clients have sub accounts. For more information, call me or email.)


In the late 1990s, I conducted a capital campaign for the Nature Conservancy’s Wisconsin Chapter. At the time TNC had 25,000 Wisconsin members – way too many to solicit in any kind of personal way – even with Board support. So where to begin?

I posed the question to my colleagues in similar positions around the country, and one introduced me to donor screening.

The essential premise of the exercise they recommended was the one I just decried – looking for rich people. But in this case “rich” is relative. In an organized and systematic way, we were looking at everyone who already gave money. This last part is critical. We’re not looking for rich people who don’t yet know us. We’re looking for rich people who already know us and understand why what we’re doing is important. And on whatever economic scale our current supporters represent, we’re looking for the top 10 percent (or so).

My Conservancy colleague helped me frame a sophisticated screen starting with each member’s name and city (to help differentiate between all the David Allens out there). Beside each member’s name were 5 numbers starting with $10,000. Thus:

$10,000       $100,000       $250,000       $500,000       $1,000,000-plus

The screener’s job was to circle a number representing the largest amount s/he could imagine the prospect ever giving.

How do you know?” was a common question. By where they live and how they live. By what kind of car they drive and what we know about what they give to other organizations.

NOTE – we already know they give to us!

Screening goes more quickly than anyone thinks it will, because of how few people anyone actually knows. On average, a screener can scan 1,500 names in about an hour. Even then, 25,000 names were too many to screen. So we broke up the 25,000 names into 8 regions and made it work.

In each region, we had screening parties with snacks and adult beverages. We invited board members, volunteers, and major donors in each area to either host an event or participate in one. It was actually a tremendous team-building activity that prepared us very well for the capital campaign ahead.

I describe all this because, in working with screening processes now for the last 25 years, I have reached several conclusions that may help you build a major gift program for your land trust.

First, the screening process I just described is way too complicated for most small organizations.

Second, screening isn’t something that you only do in front of a campaign – though it is critically important for campaigns. Screening should be done every 2-3 years or so. Your board members know more people by then, and they get sensitized to how people are giving in the community. In short, they will recognize more donors each time they scan through the list. Also, your membership changes, with new people coming in each year, and so does your board.

And third, screening can be done regularly looking for board members in addition to donors.

So here’s the system and process I recommend:

  1. Start with a list of all your current donors. Define “current” any way you wish, but I usually go back three years, and sometimes five.
  2. Present the list alphabetically (or alphabetically by zip) with columns for first name, last name, and city/state.
  3. Ask your screeners to circle people they know personally. Star anyone they feel could give $10,000 or more, given an option of a three-year pledge. Mark each person the organization should consider a board candidate with the capital letter B.


In the past, I have always used paper to print out everyone’s name. This is a horrible waste, and I get that, but I haven’t wanted everyone influencing each other’s information by using the same lists. There are better electronic solutions now.

I suggest that you ask your board members to screen the entire list, but keep in mind that other people in the community could have ears to the ground in ways your board members do not.

For what it’s worth, I always get pushback from two kinds of people on screening exercises: CPAs and attorneys. Both are concerned with betraying confidentiality. To these people, I offer the following perspectives:

  • This is a qualitative exercise, designed to help prioritize the time we have to spend with donors and supporters. Nothing is intended to be considered quantitative, and no quantitative information will be collected.
  • I would never ask anyone in such a position to betray a confidence. Please participate in the exercise. If you know something that you feel uncomfortable sharing, please just skip it. But you also know lots of people who are not clients. Share what you know or can guess about them.


Do you have some experience with donor screening? If you have tips and/or tricks you have used, please share them here. I’ll post all the ideas I am aware of on this blog.


Stay safe and stay well. And have a great week!




Photo by courtesy Pixabay



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