Is There a Value to Wealth Screening?

By Robert I. Evans

One of the most frequently discussed topics addressed at almost every vibrant fundraising organization – especially at small-to-midsized organizations – today focuses on the value of research about prospects and the time and costs associated with obtaining relevant information about potential major gift prospects and what propels their giving. Jewish nonprofits are no exception and in many instances may be lagging in their understanding about the power of research about donors.

Wealth screening software services have been available for more than 20 years. Using very sophisticated analytics that capture publicly-held information and data, the software manipulates data, reports on charitable activities by donors at all levels, adds personal income data as reported by publicly-held businesses, captures reported political giving as required by law, and then makes estimates about personal wealth and giving capacity. The estimates of giving potential are made based on assumed real estate holdings, stock portfolios, and other related components of any individual’s presumed assets. Even owning airplanes and yachts have merits in projecting philanthropic inclinations!

Major nonprofits have become dependent on research departments and small and mid-sized nonprofits have historically outsourced the research process for selective donor prospects. When reports are compiled, the researchers use a variety of public sources and pull together enormous amounts of information, most of which is used to identify preferences, habits, priorities, and other factors that help a nonprofit’s team develop proposals to donors which should result in large gifts. The long-term thinking has always been that the investment of additional staff or spending hundreds of dollars for specific research reports validate the effort when larger gifts result.

“Smart Money Magazine,” a publication of The Wall Street Journal, highlighted the process that nonprofits adopted in a now classic article from 2010 entitled “Are Charities Spying on You?” The reporter highlighted the efforts that nonprofits initiated to learn more about current potential donors; today’s techniques are even more sophisticated.

The article featured a variety of nonprofits but especially focused on the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania as a credible example of what happens routinely in the 300 largest hospitals in the United States today. Without violating any laws or intruding on private medical information, large hospitals daily screen their newest admissions for potential philanthropic support and use various wealth screening services to obtain useful information to approach grateful patients. The screening also assists hospital personnel if any major donors have become in-patients during the last 24-hours so that special attention can be directed to them or their families.

Historically, hospitals have focused on grateful patients as a core of their outreach for donors, with the hospital at the University of Maryland being among the first to introduce grateful patient screening. But colleges and universities have gone many steps further by creating in-house research teams that devote their time to preparing in-depth reports for university representatives meeting with alumni. Some places have research staff in the dozens and others limit staff to a handful. The consensus, though: the investment in staff and research time are important and invaluable investments.

Smaller nonprofits have tried to obtain comparable donor profile information so they have turned to using technology to their benefit by subscribing to screening services. While the results may not be as complete or as sophisticated as conducting intensive research using all types of online tools and other resources, they represent approaches that are quickly becoming standardized components of any major fundraising efforts today.

Our work with synagogues, day schools, social service agencies, and Jewish federations has given us insights on what Jewish organizations are doing about wealth screening and prospect research. Our unofficial survey gives us cause for concern that the typical Jewish organization is behind the eight ball when it comes to truly getting to know their donors. We are generally amazed when we ask agency leaders how they prepare to approach a serious donor about a major gift.

Annual subscriptions to DonorSearch or WealthEngine are in the thousands of dollars, and training staffers to interpret the reports is time-consuming. However, we endorse these as essential budgetary items today and contend that the investment is a good return for the dollars spent. We note that several of the major campaign management software packages, like Blackbaud and DonorPerfect, incorporate various wealth screening options in the subscription packages they offer.

As further testimonial to the value of donor research, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), has acknowledged that one integral aspect of a major gifts program today is a wealth screening effort.

Complicating the completeness of wealth screening is the growing popularity of Donor Advised Funds (DAF’s), through which donors are afforded significant degrees of anonymity, especially as compared to gifts made through a family foundation. The lack of reporting on gifts to and by DAF’s is complicating information about donors. Nonprofit leaders need to take more independent steps and adjust in-house recordkeeping systems to note gifts coming from DAF’s on behalf of constituents.

No discussion about wealth screening for nonprofits would be complete without some mention of how some donors and other volunteers feel an “invasion of privacy.” While we can understand and even sympathize with that way of thinking, in reality, wealth screening firms contend they are only pulling information that is already readily available to the public. Their software pulls together information previously announced or readily available through governmental sources or reports. All services carefully review major national, regional, local and specialty publications for news about charitable support and they do their best to stay current on the major gifts made especially by individuals every day.

As donors are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in choosing their philanthropic priorities, nonprofit organizations must use every tool available to be more strategic and successful in appealing to donor interests. Engaging in research about donors and potential donors is a crucial part of gift cultivation in today’s nonprofit arena. Large nonprofits are using it wisely; consider this a wake-up call to all the small and mid-sized organizations to embrace the power of research and emulate the successes of larger nonprofits. If you aren’t using donor research to your advantage you are undoubtedly missing opportunities to propel your organization forward.

Robert Evans is founder and president of the Evans Consulting Group, a full-service firm that helps nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals. Now in its 26th year, Evans Consulting leads fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. Mr. Evans is a member of the Giving USA editorial review board and is also a board member of the Giving Institute. He can be reached at