May 31, 2017

Development Dilemma: Uncovering High-Capacity Donors

In our weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to

This week’s question will be answered by Gene Brandt.

The Dilemma

One of our donors has given us a few hundred dollars in the past year.  We just did a wealth screening and realized she has a LOT more capacity than we realized, and has given similar organizations gifts of $10K+.

We’re beginning a campaign soon and we’d like to ask her to give at a higher level than she’s ever given us before.  How do we ask her for a larger gift without it seeming out of nowhere or revealing that we’ve been researching her?

Gene's Response

This question describes the fundamental challenge in major gift fundraising.  Back in the dark ages when I served as Vice President for Development at Lake Forest College, or when I ran the fundraising operation at the Museum of Science and Industry, the responsibility of those of us in major giving was to Rate, Screen and eventually Solicit our best prospects.  We had to figure out ourselves who had the ability as well the willingness to support our institution.  We did that by trying to develop relationships with those prospects.  I have a secret for you… that’s still the job of development officers today!

The wealth screening firms want us to believe that once an individual is identified as “high-capacity” our job is so much simpler.  But the truth of the matter is that to encourage higher-levels of giving, we must still develop relationships with our high-capacity donors.

Let’s be clear here—a donor without capacity is unlikely to ever become a major donor.  So yes, identifying those with the ability to give is really important, and it’s an incredible service that we as fundraisers benefit from when we wealth screen our donor base.  But it’s after that screening that the real work begins.  We must confirm what the screening suggests, and we must start the process of developing relationships with our best prospects.

In the case of your modest but high capacity donor, I suggest that you do what should come naturally—arrange to visit, thank her for her previous support, and tell her what your organization has planned for the future.  Listen to her tell you why she supports your organization, what excites her about philanthropy in general, and how she hopes her financial support will be utilized.  By having such a meeting (or perhaps a number of meetings), you will learn enough to guide you to the next step in the solicitation process.

One more thing to remember—asking for support for your worthwhile organization is a noble activity, one of which you should be proud.  Don’t worry about your donor feeling that the attention you are giving her is out of the ordinary.  If she were not interested in your organization, she probably wouldn’t be giving at all.  Get that first appointment.  Develop that relationship.  And… ask for the gift when the time seems right.

Written by

Gene Brandt

Gene S. Brandt is Of Counsel at TWB Fundraising.


Questions or comments? Join the conversation!

TWB Fundraising Logo
How to reach us

2 North Riverside Plaza
Suite 1875
Chicago IL 60606

Follow us on
Sign up for our newsletter
Get the latest in nonprofit news and advice delivered straight to your inbox.
The Giving Institute Logo

Copyright © 2024 TWB Fundraising. All Rights Reserved.