This conversation explores the benefits and best practices for using wealth screening with Thomas J. Minar, Ph.D. Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations American University; Devon Villa Gessert Director, Research and Prospect Management Office of Development and Alumni Relations, American University
Cynthia Woolbright: So, what we want to talk about today is wealth screening. I think that a lot of people talk about it, some are doing it, some aren’t and what we want to focus on then is how we can better understand it and use it most effectively.
At American how did you come about making your decision in purchasing a wealth screening program?
Devon Villa Gessert: I just wanted to clear up when you’re saying a wealth engine program, do you mean a vendor or a website?
Cynthia Woolbright: I’m thinking of a vendor. There are a number of vendors that are available that do wealth screening. And so when you were looking to purchase a wealth screening program, how did you decide that you wanted to do it and which one to purchase?
Devon Villa Gessert: So, it was 2006; we were in the midst of a campaign and only a partial set of our alumni parents and friends had ratings. So, we needed more prospects and we needed more prospects specifically for this campaign. And that’s how we came about needing a vendor to do a wealth screening.
So, what we did was we sent out an RFP to a bunch of different vendors who we had heard were good and we narrowed it down to two or three vendors and then we got into specifics with them like we wanted to see profile examples; we wanted to see the different ways that they provide their screening results; we wanted to know a lot of nuts-and-bolts before we made our decision. Like, where were they getting their results from? What resources were they using? Were they better than ours? Were they equal to ours?
So then, once we knew we liked one of the vendors, we would talk with other clients of this vendor to see what their experience was. We wanted to talk to clients who were similar to us. We wanted to hear from other universities who have the same sized prospect research shop as ours.
So, we had to look at the ease of use of their product because we were going to spend so much time verifying results that we wanted to make sure that their product was easy to use and we could jump in with some training, of course, and get into the data. So, ease of use was a large factor.
Reliability of the data was also a large factor and as well – training. The training that they offered in customer service we paid attention to as well because we knew we were going to have to revisit, talk to them throughout the screening process to have them answer questions.
Devon Villa Gessert: Yes. That was also a big deal when we were looking at a vendor.
We’re trying to gather all this great information, but we tried to do our homework before making this big commitment because we were doing this back in 2006 and that was still when screenings were kind of expensive and a big deal in a research shop. So, we wanted to get the most out of our money.
Cynthia Woolbright: Once you made your decision and began to use this, what do you believe to be the benefits, then, of having such a tool in your organization?
Devon Villa Gessert: I was looking at this question in two ways. There was the screening itself and then there was the screening tool that we used on a daily basis.
The screening itself, I think, even though it requires a lot of manual work in terms of verification and further research once you get the results back, it can also serve as an excellent starting point for finding new prospects. And particularly if the screening information is correct and accurate then what you’re doing is you’re starting at the top of these screening results and seeing the people that are the cream of the crop and going for them first and that can be extremely valuable when you’re in a campaign because you want to get to those people very quickly. So, that’s one of the biggest benefits.
But then also it’s a great way to segment populations in your database you have all of this data and they have sent it back with just gobs and gobs of ways to dissect this information.
In 2006 this is a great way for us to say, “Alright, we have all these great prospects in Virginia, in California” and then we can go through what they possibly could be rated; even though we hadn’t verified everything yet, we could go into it that way. So, it was a way of looking at our database in a completely different way.
Normally vendors will give you a tool that you use in conjunction with their actual screening results. And so, this was good because the screening information that you get has a limited life span. So, when you get your results you need to go through it quickly, but of course you can’t go through 25,000 people in one day. You have to segment the screening results.
Once you are verifying, say, that bottom third, your screening results could be kind of old. When you plug it into the screening tool, it gives you live data for all of the data points that they’ve already provided. So, you’re getting live data on these screening results that are possibly old.
Cynthia Woolbright: You’re getting updates with their most recent information.
Devon Villa Gessert: Yes...
Devon Villa Gessert: It’s not, of course, an essential part of our researching. We use the vendor’s research tool as a – it’s one of the resources that we use; we have a lot of different resources that we use to verify data.
Cynthia Woolbright: You discovered the fact that there were geographic areas where you could cluster alumni and even narrow it down into cities. How did you begin to use it, roll it out? How did some of the advancement members of your team begin to use it both in alumni and development?
Devon Villa Gessert: Once the decision was made to buy the product we had a lot of back and forth with the vendor and then we had training amongst the staff and we came up with an action plan on how to verify the data.
It was sort of all hands on deck, like we were all in the data and we hired a –one of our part-time researchers to get into it as well and help us verify the data.
Before it even got into, say, the hands of our fundraisers and alumni relations, we were doing our due diligence with segmenting the data because there was so much that we needed to do it in a well-thought, methodical way.
We were segmenting based on wealth indicators and the hard data that they found like stock information and real estate information and as we were having prospect strategy meetings we were rolling results out at those meetings.
And then also since the main goal of the screening was to uncover new prospects for the campaign, new prospects were being sent out to fundraisers every day, as we found them because we were wanting people to see these new prospects and contact them as soon as they could.
Tom Minar: We also have an interdisciplinary advancement team that is our regional team that does work bridging alumni relations and development and I think the data that emerges from the process that Devon is talking about has helped us refine those regions and the work of those regional people. We’re a relatively small shop for an institution our size and so we have only four people who do regional work and this has helped refine the importance of a Houston relative to a Seattle, for example.
I really think that it’s been helpful because that’s really a discovery team and a qualification team. And so that’s before putting this in the hands of fundraisers and I think that that regional advancement team that we’ve got has been helpful to Devon’s team, I certainly hope so, in terms of bringing face time to the qualification process.
Cynthia Woolbright: Tom, was part of your decision to go regional informed a lot by your wealth screening and prospect management?
Tom Minar: I would say that we had between 3,000 and 4,000 rated and unseen leads that we wanted to get out to and that the wealth process and the rating process that it results in, helps refine the way we use that, yes, that advancement program.
So, it’s really been a refinement and I think Devon would probably agree it’s got to do with different pieces of this puzzle upholding each other. My strongest feeling about all of this is that we not use wealth rating, that we use AU rating. So, we use something that is more based on our experience and our verification process which we hold really dearly.
Cynthia Woolbright: When a fundraiser says—and I know this happens—“Well, I looked a the wealth screening and these are the top ten people that I need to go see based on the wealth screening,” and I think your comment was, “That’s fine, but there’s other indicators, there’s other things that you need to do as well.”
Tom Minar: They don’t get the wealth screening. They can’t get their hands on it.
Devon Villa Gessert: Right, Tom, they don’t.
Tom Minar: Yes, Devon’s team converts it into AU ratings and ultimate financial capacity that’s the verification process. The verification process leads to an AU number. Devon, do you want to comment on that a little?
Devon Villa Gessert: Yes, absolutely. When we get our screening results back, we look at the data, but we don’t give any sort of data out to the fundraisers when it’s raw, when it comes back from the vendor; we do our own internal verification process where, like I said, we use the vendor tool, but then we use a lot of other resources that we have on hand to verify the screening results.
They do have a wealth screening rating, if you will, that the vendor has given them based on their own parameters. We look at that and we use that as a guide, but we don’t use it as our internal rating. Through the verification that we do, we assign an internal AU rating; that is given to the fundraiser and that’s how we would judge who is assigned and then the fundraiser will decide if that’s an appropriate rating for that prospect once he or she is qualified.
So, the fundraiser doesn’t get the screening results.
Cynthia Woolbright: Thank you. with wealth screening programs which provide, as you said, enormous amounts of information, it’s incumbent upon an organization to then look at, as you said, the raw data and figure out how that can be used, put it through the lens of then your – of AU. Do I have that correct?
Devon Villa Gessert: Yes.
Devon Villa Gessert: Wealth screenings that a vendor provides can be a little inflated and don’t make their formulas very clear sometimes and the way we rate people is based on a lot of different factors that a vendor may not even consider.
So, yes, like I said, it’s a great starting point for us, but it’s by no means the be-all, end-all.
Tom Minar: The wealth rating data is just data; it’s not contextualized and as a social scientist I don’t think we use just some contextualized data. We have to figure out what it means in our setting and in the setting of that individual and that’s why we invest in the research program and the prospect management program that Devon runs; it’s turning that data into something that means something in our environment with our constituents.
Frontline fundraisers are not social scientists; some of them are, some of them are also artists who are good at relationship building so they’ve become fundraisers. So, assuming that those people across a team of fundraisers at any institution can fairly adequately and evenly use raw data, that’s where the mistakes can come in and that’s where I think this stuff becomes a tool like an address.
You might as well just dumb it down to wealthy zip codes or wealthy congressional districts and then it becomes really silly. This process gives it much more meaning.
Cynthia Woolbright: So, beyond wealth screening are there other ways that you find the product valuable? Are there other ways that you use this information in terms of alumni relation programs, are there other opportunities for this wealth screening?
Tom Minar: I don’t think so. I think if you do use it for other things it’s discriminatory and in at least our institutional setting if we prioritize work we do towards people we know to be wealthy and it’s not geared toward philanthropy whether short or long term, we would be creating a problem.
So, I really think that if we use wealth data on something that doesn’t have to do with someone’s wealth, the potential for philanthropy, is sort of crossing a line that I don’t think we should cross.
Cynthia Woolbright: Right. So, you use this information with your university leaders, the key volunteers, et cetera,
Tom Minar: No.
Cynthia Woolbright: No?
Tom Minar: No, we use it internally; we will use it occasionally with the president. I might use it occasionally with the president or with the trustee committee on alumni affairs and development. Fundraisers will use it with the deans, but that’s really it.
Devon Villa Gessert: And again, nobody is getting raw data. Nobody is getting the wealth screening data itself.
Cynthia Woolbright: Devon, you said you’ve been there now ten years, you purchased the product that you’re using in ’06.In your experience in using wealth screening, what are some of the lessons learned that you might be able to share with us?
Devon Villa Gessert: I have a few that I’d like to share from a research perspective. I would say that before committing to a vendor and committing to a screening you want to assess your goals, your database improvement goals, your research pros and cons, your staffing needs, your time constraints, I think OIT needs to have a seat at the table as well as case staff and fundraisers to discuss the screening beforehand.
I think getting input from people and their needs and what people’s expectations are going to be and having that in line before embarking on your screen is going to be valuable for any research team.
And then another: when I received the first set of data way back when, I had to be prepared the minute the data arrived to check and double check the work of the vendor and make sure that I got what I intended to get.
Making sure all of the data points were in line because I would not want to start any verification process unless that was done because that would mean double work down the line for me. So, making sure it was all in line and having my resources in place and my staff in place was also necessary.
Tom Minar: Well, from the management perspective and the major gifts perspective, one is investment. I have learned increasingly over about, oh, ten or 12 years of buying this kind of data that it’s not a one-time investment; it’s sort of a constant investment.
Devon Villa Gessert: Absolutely. And we’re not in the sales business; this is not a simple thing. The wealth rating raw data is not a quick solution to almost anything. It has to be woven in to a sophisticated way of looking at your prospect base.
These are not leads for buying bulk paper or for buying electronics components; this has to be done in ways that informs your understanding of the prospect as a philanthropist and that’s when it can really bring new meaning to your understanding of where someone’s coming from and that’s where I come to this conclusion that I stated about the way we use the data and wrap it into things, not just using “wealth rating.”
Cynthia Woolbright: Thank you. That’s very helpful. For someone, a college university or school that might be considering right now purchasing a product, what advice would you give them at this point?
Devon Villa Gessert: I would say that you should shop around and see if you’re able to test screen some data first before you commit to a product. Again, I would talk to other schools who have used a vendor that you’re thinking about going with and their experiences.
I would say test people who are highly known or highly visible prospects so you can see what they found to see if their results look different than yours. I would also say that there is a lot of data so it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of data that you get back.
But if you go through it, if you segment it and go through it methodically, you can get through it. But I would definitely say to shop around and talk to other people who have used other vendors to get their input.
Cynthia Woolbright: So, it sounds to me from what I have learned from both of you is that, a) shop around, look at peer institutions, those who are using it, do a trial run in some areas. And your research team is really the critical group in terms of the validation and running it through the lens, then, of your own institution.
Devon Villa Gessert: Yes.
Cynthia Woolbright: Good, good. And I think the other thing, Tom, that you said that I think is really important is understanding that this is not an investment once every five years or once every ten years.
Cynthia Woolbright: And not only in the product, but in the team.
Tom Minar: The team is even more important than the product.
Tom Minar: I cannot emphasize that enough, this data on its own is just data; you have to have data operators, data thinkers, you have to have analytical people who will bring it to life for the institution and that’s what Devon and her staff do.
Cynthia Woolbright: Well, thank you both so very much and I really will be back in touch with you for part two.
Devon Villa Gessert
Devon Villa Gessert has been with American University in Washington, D.C., since August 2002. In her position as director of Research and Prospect Management in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, she manages prospect research functions, prospect management functions, and special projects related to prospect research. Devon currently serves as president of the APRA-Metro DC chapter as well serves on the Association of Advancement Services Professionals (AASP) Best Practices in Prospect Development committee. She is active in numerous other professional associations, including CASE.
Dr. Thomas Minar
Dr. Thomas J. Minar joined American University as vice president of development and alumni relations in October 2008. He works closely with the university leadership, school and colleges, alumni, and Board of Trustees to
support AU's strategic priorities, attract new funding, and build lifelong relationships between AU and its 100,000 alumni. Dr. Minar oversees a staff of 60, comprising AU's central school and college development staff, alumni programs, annual giving, development communications, information services, planned giving, university-wide initiatives, and research and stewardship offices.