In 1993, as a new employee at a wealth screening company, I was invited to visit an Ivy League university to discuss a possible project. I walked into the office of the director of research, a highly intelligent and efficient professional with a great deal of credibility both internally and in the industry, and sat down to discuss what they had done to date and their current needs. Almost immediately, I noticed a stack of binders almost five feet tall in one corner of the office. These were the results of the last screening, the director explained, already gathering dust after just a few short months.
Later, I came to realize both in my own work and in talking with other vendors that screening results often languished. One of the analogies was that purchasing a screening, which then averaged $25,000, and not using it was akin to purchasing a BMW and leaving it parked in the garage.
Today, the cost of a BMW has risen but the cost of most screenings has fallen dramatically. Screenings have also increased in quality in a way that would be the envy of any automobile manufacturer. But still screening results can languish, although they are now in the dust free environment of electronic deliverables rather than binders and no longer embarrassingly visible to office visitors.
Why do so many of these screening results go unutilized? It’s not a lack of value. In fact, if every organization had the benefit of a screening and made full use of it I am convinced that far more money would be raised. These are inexpensive instruments that bring tremendous focus and insight to development activity. Used well, screenings can make fundraisers far more efficient, sensitive and effective. They can often contribute facts that give fundraisers the confidence to ask for more money.
So if the problem isn’t the screening services, what is the impediment to implementation? There are any number of reasons, both good and bad, ranging from mistiming the need for results to inadequate planning for review and distribution of data and from a change in staff between the time of contracting and delivery to inability to get development officers to visit with new leads. In short, it is often a matter of poor planning and communications.
Through the years of watching good screening results sit idle, I began my own back of the envelope list of steps organizations could take prior to conducting a screening which might help to make the process more successful. So, here is my checklist for the top six things an organization should consider when embarking on a screening:
1) Define what constitutes a “prospect” for your organization
- For example, you may be looking primarily for stock market insiders, private business owners, women with deceased spouses over the age of 70, or some other combination of characteristics.
- If you’re not sure, you can look at your most successful donor relationships as a guide, determining what they have in common, keeping in mind that this is in part a reflection of where your organization has focused its past relationship building and solicitation.
- Make sure this process involves every part of the development team so that everyone is buying into the concept of a screening early on.
2) Investigate what type of information is most motivational to your team
- Sometimes what people say they want is actually somewhat different from what they really need. Since the ultimate measure of a successful screening is new prospects identified, cultivated, solicited and contributing, the information you receive and share with the team must be understandable and motivational.
- Show team members the type of information that is available from screening companies and see how they react, letting that weigh on your decision-making process rather than forcing people to join committees to author requests for proposals or site through multiple sales meetings.
3) Determine what information you currently have on file
- Look at your file to find out what you need to update and what you need to fill in, using your determinations and investigations as the measure of what you might have at the end of the screening process.
- This is also important as you begin thinking about how to prepare a file for a vendor to screen and how to integrate any new information you acquire through the screening process.
4) Decide how many prospects you need
- Screening customers often wonder how few names they can screen, often to save costs. Instead, customers should determine how many prospects they can effectively manage for the project at hand and run a file of the warmest prospects to arrive at that number. The cost is always small in comparison to the potential reward. It also increases the likelihood of a successful screening by neither inundating the organization with information it cannot use nor only providing information on previously identified prospects.
5) Talk to the screening companies
- Tell each company what you are looking for and ask if they can provide it.
- The screening companies can help you to determine the size and type of file you need to run in order to come up with the number and type of prospects you desire.
- If necessary, run test files to see deliverables, check on integration and examine online updating capability.
6) Begin writing your implementation plan
- Implementation plans for screening are rarer than original copies of the Magna Carta. Write one! It need not be long and take forever to draft. Rather, it can simply and briefly lay out the goals of the project, assign responsibilities (e.g. data review, data integration, prospect management, etc.), and so on.
- Ideally, this plan should be approved by the head of the development shop, shared with the team and ready for action upon receipt of the screening results.
Hopefully, these six items will make clear the goals, roles and responsibilities that will make for a successful project and not be a hindrance to undertaking the screening. The idea is to add clarity, not time. In fact, if done in a straightforward and direct manner, it could accelerate the process of reviewing your screening options and, most importantly, putting the screening results to effective use immediately upon delivery.
So what should organizations steer clear of as they explore screening services? There are a number of practices which are big “no-no’s” but unfortunately very commonplace in the fundraising world. Here’s my list of things to avoid:
A) Ignoring the Vendors: Shunning salespeople is entirely counterproductive. Don’t send them an email asking for costs and no phone call. After you’ve done some of your internal exploratory work, just bite the bullet and call them up. You’ll learn things you didn’t know and won’t learn from colleagues in the field. Besides, if a vendor is either unresponsive or attempts to oversell, that is a legitimate consideration in your procurement process.
B) Sending out RFPs: The fact is that screenings are usually too inexpensive to warrant such a time-consuming process. Some of the best screening companies may not even bother to respond to an RFP because the cost of compiling the response is so high.
C) Dog and Pony Shows: Inviting all the vendors in for sales presentations just shows you haven’t done your homework. While screening companies will do their honest best to listen to your needs and give you recommendations based on their suite of services, inviting all the companies to visit just means you’re kicking all the tires because you don’t yet know what kind of car you want to drive. Again, as with RFPs, some companies may simply decline the invitation.
Many of these comments assume that you may conduct a screening which appends factual data, especially wealth and ownership data, to your file. There are, however, other screening services which either create a custom model on your file or provide results which are predictive in nature. These types of services can be very useful but they cannot replace the value of knowing something factual about specific individuals or their relative financial capacity. In fact, having a strong supply of factual data on your constituents can make modeling more powerful.
Screening has always been a powerful instrument for development. The increase in available factual data and the decrease in cost over the last few years make the barrier to using a screening service very low indeed. Combined with the uncertainties of the impact of the financial crisis on our donors, there has probably been no better or more important time to run a screening. All the more reason to hold ourselves and our organizations to some strong standards as we decide how best to get started.
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