Last week, in a piece entitled Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You?, the Wall Street Journal’s “Smart Money” column set off a mini-firestorm in our trade over the use of data mining for prospect research and donor analytics.

Among the tidbits of raw meat tossed into the WSJ piece: “When your favorite nonprofit isn’t busy saving the whales, chances are it’s making a serious behind-the-scenes effort to know you better — using increasingly sophisticated technology. It can survey your salary history, scan your LinkedIn connections or use satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool.”

Within hours vigilant non-profit researchers responded.

Writing in her blog Informentation, Sarah Conner-Smith, Director of Philanthropy Operations at Feeding America, mounted a heartfelt and vigorous defense, as did dozens of others, including our own DonorTrends  prospect research mavens David and Lori Lawson and the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA).

Among the key points made by the researchers:

  • Most fundraisers/researchers not only comply with all legislation and legal requirements involving privacy, they go even further with a set of ethical guidelines on how information should be gathered and used.  See APRA’s Code of Ethics.
  • Information is gathered only from publicly available sources.  Thus fundraising researchers can no more be considered ‘spying’ on donors than the Wall Street Journal can be considered ‘spying’ when it analyzes a SEC document or a public court filing.
  • Research and analytics help charities use staff, volunteer time and marketing resources as effectively as possible, especially at a time when budgets are constrained.

DonorTrends, the parent company of The Agitator, provides powerful sets of giving and professional data to researchers through our TrueGivers™ Giving Analysis Profiles. Our policy is to use only data gathered from publicly available sources – annual reports, news articles, and websites. We believe that every donor should have the right to request that her/his name not be listed publicly and that organizations should abide by that request when preparing their published honor rolls.

But what about the millions and millions of small gift donors whose names are not publicly published on honor rolls and annual reports? Should their names and information be used without their consent? Should donors be notified and given an ‘opt out’ before their names are placed in cooperative data bases or exchanged or otherwise put to further marketing use?

For an example of how the American Civil Liberties Union, a foremost proponent and protector of privacy, approaches these issues, check out their privacy policy.

There are no easy answers, nor any easily administered solutions. But, at a time when Facebook, Google and marketing tactics generally are coming under sharper scrutiny and attack, these issues deserve continued good faith discussion.


P.S.  The Wall Street Journal piece cites research from Campbell-Rinker indicating that “nearly half of all charities now use the [research] tools to research donors.” Question: Do the other half who don’t use them deserve to be fired?

This article was posted in: DonorTrends / DonorVoice, Fundraising analytics / data, Major donors, Nonprofit management.
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