High Tech Prospect Research Worth the Investment

I wanted to discuss a capital campaign research tool mentioned in some of my prior public presentations, WealthEngine. Today, there are several other professional research firms supporting nonprofit fundraising campaigns in the market. But my personal experience is with WealthEngine, and so I will focus on my work with that company. My aim in this post is to share my experiences, a few caveats and “best practices,” and my thoughts about a kind of advanced research viewed (unnecessarily) cautiously by some.

One nonprofit noted a few years ago,

“When you compare that to direct mail, web maintenance and design, special events and other fundraising costs, prospect research is a small investment that yields greater returns and one that we’ve seen contribute to our fundraising growth …. Overall, our ROI from prospect research these past three years in 2,766%. It may seem like an incredible number, but it’s one that shows the power of prospect research and the true potential that exists when coupled with a well-functioning, aggressive fundraising program” (Houston Grand Opera).

I have used WealthEngine in three prior capital campaigns. In each case, it took time to sell the idea of investing in this kind of “high tech” prospect research to the organization’s leadership and to members of the Board. Some were very reluctant. They felt this kind of information-gathering might constitute an invasion of privacy. But the fact is, the information WealthEngine draws upon is all publicly-available. WealthEngine abides by strict ethical guidelines.

In the case of each nonprofit with which I worked, it was eye-opening how WealthEngine showed us we were focusing on the wrong prospects. For instance, those who get a lot of attention in the media may not be your best prospects, nor the most capable, in the end.

It also takes time to learn how to interpret the data uncovered by firms like WealthEngine, and to research and evaluate each prospect in detail. WealthEngine provides its data by running your list of donor and prospective donor names and addresses through their databases. But it is up to each organization to learn on its own how to use/evaluate the data (Microsoft Access is a software program that can help you there). Be prepared for that! Patience is a virtue.

WealthEngine turned our major gift campaigns on their heads. For those of us who struggle with “donor burnout,” seemingly no prospects at all (never say never), and a lack of knowledge about the backgrounds and interests of our donors and prospects, this kind of service is one you should investigate.

Having said this, nonprofits must be prepared for another possibility. If you have spent a great deal of time nurturing relationships with a select few, it will take time to incorporate your newly-discovered WealthEngine prospects into your “major gift” cultivation plans. Balance your excitement at identifying the new potential donors with careful consideration as to how you will bring them “up to speed” about your good work.

Be careful not to leap into making a significant request for financial support until the proper groundwork has been laid. As Robert L. Thornton III, an outstanding Dallas volunteer with whom I worked in the 1990s once said, this is when you need to be doing, “the slow dance.”

Additional Considerations

Security is a critical issue when one works with information provided by WealthEngine (even though it can be found online, with diligent research and/or via subscription services). Be careful when you produce “printouts” of donor data. Don’t leave them lying around so that untrained staff or the public can see them. Secure the information “in the cloud,” and when you are done, be sure to invest in and use a shredder or delete them from your computer’s hard drive and your cloud platform(s).

For those who work with WealthEngine as consultants or for a prescribed (limited) time frame, I recommend once your assignment is complete, ask WealthEngine to officially delete your online account access, and delete the master file completely from your computer.

In truth, after a certain length of time (a year or more, for example), WealthEngine data becomes outdated. People’s circumstances change, they acquire more things, they lose others. Their personal “value” can change dramatically. This is one reason you may want to consider having your prospect lists run again through WealthEngine after a year has transpired. Regardless, you should protect yourself – as well as the nonprofit and the confidential data you have been privy to – once you are no longer associated with the project for which the data was originally requested.

I would argue that publicly-available data is essential to properly developing a request for financial support and to focusing on the best possible prospective donors. But handling that information carefully is key – as is realizing that development professionals cannot (and should not attempt to) control every aspect of giving. See my article, “Listening to Donors and ‘Serendipity’ Happens.”

Last but not least, I know in Texas we have a lot of privately-held companies. The wealth of some potential supporters will therefore not be captured by a system like WealthEngine. In fact, I have seen prospects with more than $300 million in net worth show up as owning only an automobile, valued by wealth screening systems at, say, $25,000. Hence, WealthEngine and other platforms cannot do all the work for you. Traditional methods of online research and confidential inquiry among colleagues may yield better information in the end.

Additional Thoughts

Sometimes you do not need to engage such an advanced research system. Think this through. Smaller communities often already know the best prospects for their nonprofit projects. Sometimes what is needed here is improved public relations, communications, and cultivation. I have seen this on several occasions. Having said that, if your donor base is so burned out you believe your campaign has no chance of success, consider wealth screening!

TechSoup provides helpful insights into the importance of research. See, “The Basics of Grant and Prospect Research: How to identify and research funders and make tracking your results more manageable.”

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