Confessing my love/hate relationship with wealth screening

After years of encouraging clients to give it a whirl, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with wealth screening — the much-lauded tool for uncovering major gift (or any gift) prospects hiding in the organization’s mailing list. The bee’s knees of the fundraising world. The next best thing to sliced bread (or more dough).

As one vendor promises, wealth screening “provides fast, dependable solutions for identifying your best prospects, cultivating wealthy donors, and asking for the right gift amount at the right time.” Or explained my way, wealth screening acts like powerful magnet pulling possible major gift “needles” to the surface of that “haystack” you call a database.

Ah, the potential. The possibilities. The prospects. What’s not to love? But then the data is handed over and that’s when reality sets in – along with the hate.

how_are_you_feeling_button_9148Pardon my strong emotion, but I’ve seen too many development teams mucking around for treasure in a data dump, only to give up in frustration after a few weeks. Despite promises of easy to comprehend reports, the files that arrive in the mail (these days, in the cloud) are incomprehensible to the majority of fundraising staffs.

And as for the support services provided — the webinars, online tutorials, and access to coaching — most are above the heads of the average development staffer or ignored in the fundraisers’ haste to get to the gold.


I wish the companies doing the screening did a better job of screening the organizations buying their services. Okay, I know it sounds like I’m asking for a lot. But really, a few questions are all that’s needed to assess an organization’s readiness to maximize wealth screening.

  • For example, a vendor might inquire about the imagined ROI from wealth screening and the expected timeline. If an organization needs an immediate and major influx of cash, the CEO or board likely won’t have the patience to wait while the development team works with the data. Evaluation of the date is rushed, training short-changed, and the whole thing flops. Analysis takes time, as does learning to use a new tool. If it’s immediate results the organization is after, wealth screening isn’t a good fit.
  • Or how about asking if the organization has/will/can designate and pay to train a point person to manage the data that will be forthcoming? Nine times out of ten, this is where I see the process head south. Penny-foolish organizations scrimp on training and as a result, mega pounds paid for the screening are for naught. At least one person in the organization (two or more is even better) must be expert in interpreting and applying the data.
  • And then there’s the really big question: Is the fundraising team (including the CEO) ready and willing to call on people they don’t know? Cold calls are intimidating, even for experienced development officers. But unless fundraisers are willing to step outside their comfort zones, all the information in the world won’t matter. It takes more than facts to get the organization’s toe in some new doors.

On the other hand — and in fairness to the vendors — fundraisers could be better shoppers. I wish the folks doing the purchasing took more responsibility for making the most of what they’ve purchased. Again, I know that’s asking a lot. But clear thinking going into the wealth screening process can ward off frustration down the road.

  • For example, even the most sophisticated of big data methodologies can’t guarantee that potential prospects care about in the mission of the organization that’s commissioned the wealth screening. It makes me scratch my head in wonder, but despite repeated reminders that the wealth screening “magnet” attracts other objects along with the “needles” they seek, fundraisers continue to be surprised at having to do some sleuthing of their own.
  • Then there’s the skepticism on the part of fundraisers and CEOs about the validity of the report. Never mind that the organization trusted the vendor enough to sign a contract. Invariably, there’s immediate thumbing through the summary reports in search of where the data is off base — where someone who’s known as wealthy is scored low, or vice versa. Too few customers, it seems, read and heed the disclaimer that wealth screening is a powerful, but not omniscient.
  • And the big one – reluctance on the part of staff to do the work of transforming data into donors. In my experience, if fundraisers aren’t already including cold calls in their visit schedules, access to new information isn’t going to change old work habits. I shouldn’t have to say it, but I do – over and over again: Names on paper, no matter how cleverly segmented, ranked, and categorized, don’t turn into gifts without someone knocking on doors, presenting the case (winsomely), and asking (graciously).

Wealth screening is a marvelous asset in the right hands. In the wrong hands, it’s almost always a waste of resources and time. Which brings me back to my starting point – the love/hate relationship I developed with the tool.

If you’re considering wealth screening, you know what I wish for you.


  1. Esther Rumsey says:

    This could be a commentary on a lot of the new data gathering tools. Our school spends a considerable portion of our recruitment money buying lists of potential students gather from the reject lists of large Universities without even thinking that the majority of those prospects are a poor match with our small school small town setting. This “saves” them the cost of two human recruiters. I imagine there are similar products for potential customers for businesses. Too many leaders see the technology as a quick fix and forget the technology is only as good as the people working with it.

    • Good point, Esther, and thank you for reminding us that fundraising isn’t the only field in which the power of technology is over-estimated. The old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still holds. Sadly, because organizational leaders misunderstand what technology can or can’t do for them, a lot of good stuff becomes garbage in the wrong hands.

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