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Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE

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Screening Sessions for Major Donors

Many times in smaller organizations, executive directors and development directors will bemoan the fact that they do not have the "movers and shakers" on their board and, therefore, cannot consider a major gift program or a capital campaign that relies heavily on leadership level gifts. Before writing off your board members, consider doing some brainstorming on major donor prospects. You may be surprised at the connections your board has in this regard.

Brainstorming is best done in the form of screening and rating session. There are basically three ways in which to conduct screening for major donor prospects. For all three methods the screening committee could include:

  • Board members
  • Staff
  • Development committee members
  • Members of a leadership gifts committee
  • Organization volunteers with broad community connections

Select your committee members very carefully and make them aware that the information shared in these meetings is VERY CONFIDENTIAL. If your board or committee volunteers have never done screening before, explain to them that this method is used routinely in most organizations and is the best way to determine the key ingredients of a major gift -- Linkage, Ability and Interest (the LAI Principle). If you are working with a consultant, they will generally lead the screening meeting. If you do not have a consultant, be sure that the meeting is led by an experienced group facilitator. It will be very important to keep the group on task and explain the methodology and reasons behind the screening meeting to those who are not familiar with the process.

It is also crucial to start with a preliminary list. It is often hard to get a brainstorming session started with a blank slate. Prepare a list of the top 10 percent of donors to your organization or other prospects that you feel may have the potential to make a major gift. List the giving history of these people, with their largest gift and most recent gift. Provide a column for each of the key ingredients -- Linkages, Ability and Interest. Be sure to mark the sheets "Highly Confidential." And of course, if gifts have been made anonymously, do not list them.

Now to the three methods:

  1. The Open Screening Session: Invite the group to assemble in a quiet room and open the discussion with brief explanation of the process, its importance to your organization and why they were selected to help with this task. Then distribute the lists and discuss each name on the list, attempting to determine the best linkage -- 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 -- what COULD this person give to the organization if so motivated? Without revealing confidential information, the screening committee members often can "guestimate" the person's net worth and/or income. Then try to determine Interest -- does this person have knowledge of your organization, is this a cause they are known to support? Is there a specific program of your organization or part of your project that you think would interest them? As each name is discussed, complete the form with the linkages, ability and interest named. The advantage of this method is that there is discussion and consensus; the disadvantage is that some people feel uncomfortable discussing prospects.
  2. The Closed Session: This method is very similar to the first, except that 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 may feel freer to comment on prospects if they are doing it confidentially; the disadvantage is that once the lists are collected (each screener should mark his or her name on the list before turning it in) there is a lot of guesswork and perhaps follow up to clarify what a screener has written. Without the open discussion it is sometimes difficult to figure out why one person thought this prospect had the ability to give $1,000,000 and another suggested $10,000.
  3. The Private Screening Session: This method is similar to the first except that it is held one-on-one with a staff member and a screening committee member. The list is reviewed with screening committee members one at a time in the privacy of their office or home. The advantages of this method are that it is easier to schedule people at their convenience than getting them all together in one room and the open discussion takes place at least between he staff and the screening committee member; the disadvantages are that it take a lot more staff time to meet with screening committee members individually and, again, the lack of open discussion may mean follow up to clarify major differences of opinion.

In all three methods, you will want to make sure to encourage screeners to add their own names to the list. Often seeing the list will jog people to think of other potential donors for your organization.

Whichever method you use, you will most likely uncover some hidden "stars" among your current donors and uncover new prospects along the way. Good luck and happy prospecting.

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