Prospect Research v. Invasion of Privacy

Edward Snowden became a worldwide “celebrity” when he leaked classified information about the US National Security Agency’s spying programs.

In the process, Snowden’s revelations have fueled discussions around the globe about privacy and access to information.

The Economist recently published a chart by the Boston Consulting Group that looks at how people around the world feel about the privacy of different types of information:

Privacy - The Economist 1113  

As you can see from the above chart, people around the world, particularly in the West, value their privacy. For example, the vast majority of Americans consider financial data and information about children to be “moderately or very private.”

That might explain why alumni from New York’s prestigious Dalton School were upset when volunteer solicitors were given information about the children of fundraising prospects. Specifically, solicitors were told about the children of prospects who had applied for admission to the School but who were rejected.

An alumna who had previously donated to the School described the situation to The New York Times as “horrible.” That’s the last thing you want someone to feel about your development program. It’s the last thing you want someone to say about your organization to a reporter.

The head of Dalton issued a public apology and a promise to do better.

It’s easy to understand the tension that exists between nonprofit organizations and their donor prospects. Organizations want to gather as much useful information as possible, and they want their professional and volunteer solicitors to know a great deal about the people they will approach in order to maximize success. However, this posture is often at odds with prospects who want and expect what they consider their personal information to remain private.

Charities face two issues when it comes to prospect research and privacy:

1. What information is acceptable to collect?

2. Who should have access to prospect/donor information?

Organizations should have a policy about what information it will gather and what sources it deems appropriate. It’s not enough to say that all public, legally available information is fair game. For example, divorce records, which are often public information, can contain a great deal of material about a prospect’s family and assets. However, just because it might be legal to review such information, should your organization’s staff be permitted to do so?

The Code of Ethical Principles and Standards of the Association of Fundraising Professionals requires development professionals to respect the privacy of prospects and donors. In addition, the Code demands that fundraisers protect the confidentiality of all privileged information.

The Statement of Ethics from the Association of Professional Researchers in Advancement provides guidelines to nonprofit organizations including the statement:

They shall only record data that is appropriate to the fundraising process and protect the confidentiality of all personal information at all times.”

Organizations must have policies and systems to ensure that all collected data, notes, correspondence, and giving histories are kept private. Only those who require access to the data to perform their jobs should have access to the information.

In addition, organizations should only collect and store information that is essential and that has been collected from legal and acceptable sources.

So, how can you know what is acceptable? It’s not an easy question. However, here are two questions that can help guide you:

1. If a prospect or donor asks to see his file, will he feel violated by what he finds in it?

2. If a prospect or donor discovers what information you have shared with a solicitor, will she feel compromised?

In other words, you should be donor centered. Think of how your prospect or donor feels about how you collect information, what data you gather, and to whom you disseminate it. If you let that insight guide you, you’ll avoid having one of your prospects or donors describe you as horrible. With happy prospects and donors, you’ll have greater fundraising success.

What privacy issues have you encountered? What issues have you faced when trying to set research boundaries? How do you make sure everyone in your organization adheres to acceptable practice?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

13 Responses to “Prospect Research v. Invasion of Privacy”

  1. It’s important that organizations understand and explain why they are collecting so much information. So, I advise our clients to remind them that nonprofits need to be as efficient and effective as possible. In fact, it’s the donors that demand this level of efficiency.

    Collecting data about donor behavior helps nonprofits send the right messages to the right targets at the right times. If they did not collect and use this information, they’d have to resort to spamming everyone on Earth and spending millions of dollars on paper and postage for direct mail.

    Simply stated, collecting information is good customer service. The best businesses in the world do it, so your organization should, too!

    • Greg, thank you for commenting. I do not disagree with you. Nonprofit organizations need to collect and use information about prospects and donors. AFP and APRA also agree with that. However, organizations must make policy decisions about the types of information collected, the acceptable sources of information, and who will have access to that information. Then, the organization will be in a good position to explain its practices to the public and earn the public’s trust. A haphazard approach to data collection and use will likely result in problems for the organization, maybe not today but someday.

      Fortunately, charities do not need to be hyper-sensitive when it comes to prospect research and privacy. The for-profit sector has already helped to set the public’s expectations regarding privacy. While nonprofits don’t need to be hyper-sensitive, they do need to be responsible.

  2. Michael, I couldn’t agree more. In a couple of my recent posts, I mention that some donors don’t want their information shared publicly, whether it is on mailing lists being sold to another organization or the level of their giving on a donor appreciation wall. Privacy must be a major consideration when dealing with our supporters. The questions you mention as guidelines are perfect for an organization to consider when researching their past, present, and potential donors. Let the donors be the guide and ask them personally. If they are willing to share it, then record it.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’ve made a number of solid points in few words. For certain donors and in certain cultures, even public recognition of a generous gift will be perceived as a violation of privacy. Trading or renting lists will also be seen by many as a violation of privacy. The proper course of action is obvious: Ask the donor. You also touch on an important point about prospect research: The prospect is often the best source of information about the prospect. The additional benefit is that if the prospect shares the information with you, it’s fair game to use it. The development process should be donor centered, even when it comes to prospect research.

  3. Thank you for this post! I agree wholeheartedly with your rules of thumb. Organizations need written guidelines on ethics and confidentiality in managing donor and prospect information. Much of it is common sense, but I have been shocked by some of the things I have seen in written profiles or contact reports. Professional staff need specific guidance regarding what is appropriate or not to keep on record.

    One example is when a prospect shares information about a personal health diagnosis with an individual gift officer, having no intention for that information to go further. It is a violation of the prospect’s privacy for the gift officer in that situation to capture that information in a contact report that colleagues can see. I have heard the argument that the information is pertinent to the prospect’s gift decision, and therefore needs to be regarded as part of the relationship with the organization. I have had to advise and coach many gift officers not to keep this type of information in any written record. If it truly does need to be part of a relationship cultivation strategy, have a verbal conversation about it only with those who need to be aware of it.

    I give gift officers the same advice you state in your post. Ask yourself: Would the donor be pleased to see this information if they saw it in their own file? If the answer is no, don’t put in on record. This protects the interests of all involved.

    I like your second rule, too. I’m going to adopt it.

    • Sarah, thank you for your kind comment. I’m glad to know that this post resonated with you. I agree with you that development professionals need to be careful about what prospect or donor information is recorded. And organizations need policies regarding the collection, storage, and dissemination of information. While recording health information might not be appropriate to maintain at most organizations, as you’ve suggested, that might not always be the case. For health related charities such as disease research foundations, it might be perfectly acceptable to record such information. This is just one example of why each organization must develop policies regarding what is appropriate for itself.

  4. Good post, Michael. And good points in the comments so far. You hit on what it all really comes down to – relationships carried out with integrity. And those dealing with donors need to be constantly aware of the need for judgment.

    When in doubt, talk to the donor. If your organization doesn’t have someone who can talk to the donor, then it’s likely no amount of information – from public or other sources – is going to be effective anyway.

    • Mary, thank you for the kind comment. While the tension around prospect research has always been with us, I think it has become more of a challenging issue in recent years for two reasons: 1) In the electronic age, more information is available than ever before; and 2) For a variety of reasons, the public has become increasingly aware of and sensitive to issues concerning privacy (i.e.: the NSA story). So, while prospect research v. privacy has always been an issue, I think it is now more of an issue than ever before.

      By the way, I really liked your phrase: “…relationships carried out with integrity.” That’s the key to good, professional development.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts both in the article and everyone in the comments – we are grappling with this at the moment.

    What do you think about the use of LinkedIn information? It’s put out by the (potential) donor but prospect researchers are tentative about having them be notified that their profile is being viewed.

    • Geraldine, thank you for your comment and question. The APRA Social Media Ethics Statement will provide you and others with some useful guidance on this issue though the Statement is general in nature. While I won’t share the entire Statement here, I would like to highlight a few clauses:

      “Social media outlets create extraordinary opportunities for the practice of prospect research.” I agree with this point. Social media postings, including those on LinkedIn, are not private though some postings might be restricted (i.e.: Facebook allows certain types of information to be seen only by folks categorized in different ways). I believe that publicly available information on social media sites is generally fair game provided that the information itself is appropriate to collect.

      “Members shall exercise transparency with respect to their identities, the identity of their institution and their relation to it, and to the purpose of their online presence and communication.” In other words, if you’re going to issue a LinkedIn invitation to join your network or a Friend request on Facebook, you should not pretend it is for personal purposes. Instead, you should make it clear to the recipient who you are and who you represent. Then, if the individual accepts you into her network, she’ll be making an informed decision. In that case, information available to you would also be fair game provided the information itself is appropriate to collect.

      “Members shall respect the privacy of individuals and conduct their work with the highest level of professionalism and discretion. They shall maintain appropriate boundaries when gathering and sharing information, taking care to distinguish between professional and personal addresses, communications, uses, and behavior. Information gathered from social media sites shall remain confidential and be shared only with authorized organizational staff as part of standard business operations.” Appropriateness of information and privacy remain two vitally important considerations. While the source of information might be valid, the information itself may or may not be appropriate to collect and record at the charity.

      To summarize, I don’t see a problem with using public profiles on LinkedIn as a source of prospect information.


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