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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Plumbing Your Donors and Prospects
by Elizabeth Crabtree

In the lifecycle of every fundraising organization the need to conduct some type of database screening becomes a topic of much consideration and sometimes, debate.

Past experience with bad data, a misunderstood product or an inability to adequately plan for and implement screening results may adversely influence management’s decision about the value of purchasing vendor services to provide wealth indicators, target gift estimates, or propensity scores on your constituency base.

Yet for many organizations, database screenings are a vital resource that can accelerate the engagement of prospective donors and help pinpoint affinity and gift capacity.

Often, the problem is that organizations don’t fully understand or consider how to prepare for a successful screening, how to objectively evaluate the vast array of products, services and methodologies promoted by vendors, or ultimately, how to implement the results.

The purposes of database screening

Many organizations think about and budget for a screening when they are planning for a campaign. A campaign-focused screening typically serves to inform the initial segmentation of prospects on the campaign gift table and helps prioritize cultivation activities.

When a screening occurs in preparation for a campaign, the results (if highly successful and positive) can highlight the untapped prospect potential and opportunity to engage new constituents and may even substantiate a case for additional fundraising staff and budget dollars to support these outreach efforts.

New prospect identification is a common goal of screening, which can help an organization start, build up or improve major gift fundraising. Screening data can be used to fast-track the qualification process of a major gift program and get new officers in new territories up and going quickly.

A typical screening would also provide a means to understand or calculate potential gift capacity; and depending upon the product chosen might also provide some sense of understanding about inclination. Of course, the ultimate goal is to increase fundraising revenues, often supporting the achievement of new or increased fundraising goals.

Screenings can be highly effective for the annual fund. By using certain screening products and techniques you can better segment and target annual fund solicitations, creating more customized marketing and communications strategies, increasing participation rates and better target an ask amount.

Instead of simply sending a reply card with checkboxes for levels of gifts, screenings can help you ask for a specific gift amount in an annual solicitation that is appropriate for different segments of donors. Again, the ultimate goal is to increase dollars and participation. Screenings for the annual fund at large organizations can also help eliminate low-potential prospects from your mailings, reducing costs and increasing the overall effectiveness of your program.

There are also products that can help to identify and segment potential planned giving prospects. These types of screenings might include lifestyle and life stage factors and even identify prospects most likely to be interested in different planned giving vehicles, such as bequests, annuities and charitable trusts. If you can segment your planned giving potential in this way, you can better target brochure mailings and communications to different groups of your population.

Other uses for screening data include improving communications and marketing messaging, identifying potential volunteers, and matching individuals’ interests in different types of programs, events and activities sponsored by your organization.

Preparing for a screening

  • To prepare for a screening you must first consider what it is that you really need to accomplish from the screening versus what you think you want or what a vendor may be trying to sell you. Ask yourself these questions:
  • What are your immediate needs?
  • What are your prioritized goals?
  • When do you need it?
  • How do you plan to use it?
  • What type of commitment can you make to evaluate and implement the results?
    You must also understand the quantity and quality of the records in your database. This can dramatically affect not only the screening costs but the success of the screening results.
  • How many records do you have by constituency type, donors versus non-donors, by geography, and so forth.
  • How many are considered active records?
  • How many records are addressable?
  • Do you have issues with duplicate records?
  • Do you have outdated or presumed deceased records?
  • Are your records incomplete?
  • Are spouses in separate or unlinked records?
  • If you are not confident about the quality of your records you may first need to hire a vendor to scrub, cleanse, update or append information to your database before a wealth or propensity screening would be successful.

    Another series of important preparation steps is to consider the technical requirements of a screening.

  • Who has to prepare the data (output to vendor) and manage any technical issues you might encounter. Is this person highly competent (programmer, IT person) or a novice end-user?
  • If you purchase a product that requires a great deal of programming support or technical training, do you have the staff, budget and commitment to support this need?
  • Do you just want quick and easy data that you can simply upload into your existing database? If so, you should test how this would work with every vendor you consider.
  • What does it take to understand the product and learn how to use it? Does it require training? Does it require consulting services? Are your end-users going to like the product?

By answering the previous series of questions you will formulate a plan of action that will determine the scope of work of your screening, the project timeline, and the expected outcomes.

Elizabeth Crabtree is the Director of Prospect Development at Brown University. She is a member of the APRA board of directors, currently serving as APRA President. Elizabeth is also a member of AFP, CASE, and NEDRA and is a nationally recognized speaker and philanthropy and nonprofit research consultant.

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