What’s in Your Donor File?

spreadsheetAs people conduct more and more of their lives online, they are putting a great deal of personal information about themselves in places where others — including prospect researchers — can find it easily. This can lead to misunderstandings about what prospect researchers can find and use. For example, the article “Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You? (The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2010) claims charities are “using increasingly sophisticated technology [to] survey your salary history, scan your LinkedIn connections or use satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool.”

As unsettling as it is to imagine a cadre of satellite-snooping prospect researchers monitoring everyone’s promotions and portfolios, the reality is fortunately much more mundane, says Justin Tolan, chief fundraising adviser at AMPERAGE in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “The primary reason you should be seeking information is to determine the interest before determining the wealth,” he explains. “Interest is paramount.” However, researchers routinely overlook much of what’s publicly available simply because it does not tell fundraisers about a prospect’s philanthropic interests.

At the same time, there are also legal boundaries as to what researchers can obtain and use. Anything spelled out in legislative privacy provisions, such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) privacy laws, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), is strictly off limits. Furthermore, the information that is collected must be kept strictly confidential with controlled access. The APRA Code of Ethics identifies four fundamental principles that members must abide by:

  • integrity and honesty in the conduct of research
  • accountability to applicable laws, standards and levels of discretion
  • accuracy, appropriateness and confidentiality of the work
  • avoidance of conflicts of interest

The line for charities, especially for quasi-public institutions such as state universities and public libraries that have access to vital statistics, is quite clear: information such as student grades, medical histories, fines and/or legal violations has no bearing on gauging interest. As for information about bank accounts, loans and credit card debt, that is strictly unavailable. Researchers may learn about many of a prospect’s assets, but not his or her liabilities.

Finally, there are professional and ethical boundaries governing what should be collected. Tolan says that researchers traditionally follow a “golden rule” principle. “You should not seek details on a person’s private life if you would not want him or her seeking the same about you,” he advises. (The AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards and A Donor Bill of Rights also apply; both are available on the AFP website.)

Joshua M. Birkholz, a principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner in Minneapolis/St. Paul and author of Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy, sees a trend in both the quantity and quality of information being collected. Rather than compiling extensive biographies of prospects, nonprofits are collecting less, but more relevant, information. “It’s actually more costly and inefficient to do detailed research up front,” he says. Initial research should describe a prospect as likely to have a compatible interest with the organization, which a fundraiser can then build on during the initial contact. “Once you meet the donor,” he adds, “all the information you got before the meeting may go out the window.”

For their part, experienced donors understand and even expect that researchers are collecting information about them. However, having too much information up front can get the relationship off on the wrong foot. “It’s awkward to have a conversation in which I know more about them than they think I should know,” Birkholz explains. “Fundraisers should take the high road in the relationship.”

This post was adapted from “More Than Data: How Prospect Research can Help You Fine-Tune Your Ask, Allowing You to Raise More Money More Cost-Effectively,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, January-February 2011 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.