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Wealth Screening, Part II

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.

Interview Transcript

Cynthia Woolbright: In our last conversation, we learned a lot, about the process of selecting wealth screening products, and a lot related to the rationale and approach that you use there at American University. And today we want to now explore further the goals of your wealth screening, to uncover new prospects for the campaign. When we last spoke, you indicated that, “A,” you have an interdisciplinary advancement team that is regionally based; and that this team bridges both alumni relations and development.

Tom Minar: Right.

Cynthia Woolbright: And so, how did you identify your regions, and what role did your wealth screening play? That was where we left off before, and I’d like to pick up there.

Tom Minar: Well, it’s really very simple; we took our own rated prospects and we dumped them into a filter that sorted them geographically, and then enabled us to massage the data, to come out with four regions of the United States outside of the Washington metropolitan area, widely defined, that had roughly equal numbers of prospects in a certain ratings category. And however we did that work with the data, which was probably now three years ago, enabled us to look at that data for people with AU ratings between $25,000 and $500,000. And we ended up really concentrating on people – Devon, in what? $50,000 to $250,000

Tom Minar: What it amounted to, was that we have a lot of untouched, untapped prospects. And we had not previously had a system that assured us that over a period of years we’d be plowing through those prospects, or at least attempting those prospects. And this was just a way, based on geographic region, to apply some method to getting through those people.

Tom Minar: And the wealth ratings informed that by enabling us to go to the group that is either rated highest,– for our principal gifts program. And then these are folks that are in traditional sort of major gifts ranges.

Cynthia Woolbright: And you talked about bridging alumni relations and development. Before we go any further, talk to us, about the concept of bridging both. Because as you know, that isn’t always the way our work is done. It often stands separately.

Tom Minar: You know, I think that we’re going to see, increasingly, with the sophistication of prospects, them wanting to have sophisticated relationships with institutions, where they might be working through a development and alumni relations program, to accomplish their engagement with athletics, and with former faculty members of theirs; or faculty members in other areas where they might be involved in research or visiting—those kinds of activities. This is all sort of rooted in the fact that we know our best donors are also people who are engaged, or who are volunteers; and that our best volunteers are also people who give. The reality is that…

Tom Minar: …creation of a regional gifts program, we also thought would be sort of locally threatening, because our development activities had at that point, for a number of years—five or eight years—been structured around academic units. And while that’s still true, we’ve modified the way we do that, to make sure that we’re maximizing opportunities on the prospects side; not just maximizing opportunities for our academic units, unit by unit. But by making sure that we’re looking out for donors’ interests and their relationships with us, we’re, I think, just creating stronger and, if you will, more maximized relationships with those donors. Our regional advancement officers make one-on-one visits and calls with people in their regions. And by the way, the number of regions was based on what we thought it would take to get through our prospect pool in a reasonable amount of time; but also what we could afford. I mean, it was certainly partly budget driven. And – anyway, so they make individual calls and qualify prospects. And in fact, now they’re engaged in solicitation. But they also work with our alumni relations staff on regional event activity, recruitment of volunteers, and finding other ways for people to be involved other than giving.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay. Good. And the alumni relations staff and your development team both seem to work well in that concerted effort there, in a region, then?

Tom Minar: Yes. Not just in that program but across our division.

Tom Minar: I don’t have much tolerance for people who work in these functions and don’t recognize the relationship between these functions, of alumni relations and development. And we’re not a very small institution; but, realistically, we can’t bear to have people who don’t understand the end objective is not just resources for the institution—financial resources for the institution—but engagement of people on a lifelong basis.

Cynthia Woolbright: And from your perspective, Devon, to figure out what information means in your setting, what process did you use, to really invest in this wealth screening?

Devon Villa Gessert: The reason why we even thought about doing wealth screening, was because of the campaign, and we needed new prospects for the campaign. But the screening was a way to figure out how to segment a population. We had a huge, huge database of alumni, and we were trying to wrap our heads around how – who these people were, and who do we contact first? So, the screening was the perfect way to figure out who to go to first for the campaign.

Devon Villa Gessert: So, it’s just a starting point in your research. The pool of prospects – of potential prospects, is so big that the wealth screening helps you segment all of those prospects, and then figure out who to look into first.

Cynthia Woolbright: How, then, in a geographic region, were those top hundred or so people that came up—did they prove to be of value, of interest, to AU?

Tom Minar: Not always.

Devon Villa Gessert: Yes. Not always. I mean, someone – if we find some good stuff on paper, that’s one thing; but it really takes the development officer to go in and qualify that prospect, to see if they have any interest in American.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, how well does the information play out generally for you?

Devon Villa Gessert: Right. when we’re verifying the results in a screening, we’re – at the same time, updating the contact information.

Devon Villa Gessert: …if we have good contact information, then the development officer has a better chance of getting in touch with that person. And then, once they contact them, it could take a couple extra contacts in order to either meet with them or even get a response.

Devon Villa Gessert: The regionally based development officers have had actually pretty good luck with reaching out to prospects and getting visits, from what I’ve seen.

Cynthia Woolbright: Are your development officers who’ve been doing this now for this time period—are they finding that people are generally receptive to AU? And to, wanting to get engaged?

Tom Minar: I will say that generally we find that we are hindered by contact rates. In other words, people’s willingness to pick up a telephone.

Tom Minar: We are also hindered by a history which was maybe 30, 40 years of not investing a whole lot in alumni.

Tom Minar: What we’ve been trying to do is build as many routes to access to the institution for constituents as possible.

Cynthia Woolbright: Can you share with us the type of training, then, you do with your front line fundraisers, as they consider this information that you, Devon, and your team provide? How do you get them to understand that?

Devon Villa Gessert: So, when a new fundraiser is hired, we place them into a training, where the research staff will train them on prospect management practices here at AU, we show them the database and we train them to enter contacts into the database.

Devon Villa Gessert: So, we’ll train them on our systems, and then we’ll train them on the ways to enter in their contacts, to look at their contacts. And then, coupled with the research that we’re providing, it’s then up to them to contact the prospect and then follow up with us if they have any additional information that they find out from their visit, or any conversations that they’ve had with the prospect. Like, updating the contact information, or any kind of wealth information that might help us to look into them further.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, how are you doing your strategy sessions and helping each of them learn from each other?

Devon Villa Gessert: So, every month I will meet with the schools and units to talk about their active prospects. We’re meeting with them and talking about their activity from the prior months, and their next month’s planned activity. So, this is where we say, okay, you haven’t contacted a prospect in, in over ten months. What’s going on with this? We can also see patterns of, geographically, who has not been contacted. So, if it looks like all of the Arizona prospects need to be contacted, is there a visit planned any time soon? And it’s almost like a sort of tickler session to say, okay, something needs to happen with this one. Something needs to happen with this region. What’s going on with the local prospects? And then they are also having meetings with Tom on top of that.

Tom Minar: Right. And I use this data through our Apex system, which Devon has spoken of before, in my individual meetings with program leaders…

Tom Minar: …or supervision meetings. And use it in different ways with different people. Because it motivates them differently.

Tom Minar: We have new information. We have management reports that we’re just learning how to use to influence and motivate officers. But the next step is, how do we use them as a group together?

Cynthia Woolbright: I think from what I’m learning, is that it’s really the research and the prospect development has to be very solid. And you spend a considerable amount of time working through that.

Cynthia Woolbright: And I guess the question then is, how do you hold off a board and a president {laughter} for a year and a half, two years, to get them to understand that the time spent upfront is going to be well suited for the next – not only the next few years to come, but for many more years to come?

Tom Minar: Well, I think the things that we’re doing are actually making an impact five to ten years from now. The way we’re holding off the board and the president now is a different matter, which is a successful principal gifts program.

Tom Minar: We’re making our dollar differences with seven-figure gifts more than we are with six-figure gifts.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, you had enough of a constituency that was able to make those large gifts, to satisfy the board and the president, while you’re then bringing this next group along.

Tom Minar: Okay. That’s one way of looking at it. But if you don’t tell my donors, what I’ll tell you is that we’re actually fast-tracking people of significant capacity. And we’re getting seven-figure gifts from people we didn’t know two and three years ago.

Cynthia Woolbright: To what do you attribute that?

Tom Minar: I think some of it comes from new, really smart and invigorated academic leadership across the institution. Enthusiasm for our strategic plan, and sort of the general direction and vision of American University today. We’ve attracted the engagement of some people who are electrified by what we’re doing and trying to accomplish. And there are people of resources. And we do have, then, the right personalities at the university to build quick, trusting relationships where people see the impact that they can make, and move ahead with us in making it.

Tom Minar: We’ll close this year with the highest cash and pledge years we’ve ever had, except one campaign year where we got huge gifts from two benefactors in one fell swoop.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, to wrap up, since you’re both really familiar with wealth screening, and obviously you both have considerable experience in this, what sort of lessons might you suggest to another VP or another Director of Research? What challenges should they consider?

Tom Minar: To the VPs I say, don’t try to do this on your own. Surround yourself by smart people. Don’t take someone from one area of your shop and say, you can do research too. Go out and find an experienced researcher who has a strategic mind, and who has the capacity to get her or his head around data and create meaning out of it with you and for you. What’s happened here is that we’ve got one of the nation’s leading researchers and one of the nation’s leading advancement technology people, and they’ve put their heads together and brought us the results that I wanted, in terms of creating tools that enable us to bring new vision and new future to our program. That was praise, Devon.

Devon Villa Gessert: Thank you, Tom.

Devon Villa Gessert: What I would say is, have a plan in place before you send your data off to the screening warehouse. Because once the data is back, you only have a finite amount of time to verify those results. Because they’re only good for a certain amount of time, because people change, people move, and different circumstances happen. So, you want to jump on the data as soon as you get it back. So, having a plan before you send it out, is a good idea. I also mentioned, I think in our last call, to verify your results. So, you always want to verify the screening results as well as the ratings. You want to use your own rating system that you use internally.

Cynthia Woolbright: Do the best you can with what you have in that period of time. I know that makes perfect sense. So – well, I thank you both once again for your contribution to this. This has been fabulous and I think very valuable.

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.

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