Late last week, the Wall Street Journal’s online edition published “Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You?”  The very clear message: nonprofits are digging into the very corners of our personal lives.

The media is once again channeling Casablanca’s Captain Renault who said, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” while collecting his receipts.

Every day, business journalists and marketers in virtually all industries use research services to identify new markets and tailor their messages to maximize profits.  Then some of these same people look at nonprofits and utter two contradictory complaints:  1) Nonprofits are not efficient and should find better ways to raise money; and, 2) using research violates the public trust and is not in keeping with charitable culture.

Then again, look at the glaring examples of impropriety the Journal cites.  According to the article, nonprofits “can survey your salary history, scan your LinkedIn connections or use satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool…the charity can even get an email alert when your stock holdings double.”  It does sound intrusive, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, it’s not true!

Apart from the top five officers at a public company, salary information is not public and could only be estimated based on salary surveys and industry journals.  Connections on LinkedIn cannot be viewed except by first level contacts.  Stockholding data is available only on stock market insiders and any other such information is estimated based on proximity.  And as for eyeballing those swimming pools, well, Google Earth is the culprit, not prospect research.

Of course, the Journal already knows this because they and their subscribers are among the best users of research tools in America.  They are subscribers to many of the same tools, in fact, as their nonprofit colleagues.

The difference, however, is that fundraisers have very high standards for determining which types of information to use and how to use it: The Donor Bill of Rights and the APRA Code of Ethics.

As you can imagine, ever since the article’s publication, researchers have been up in arms, exchanging notes on their listserves and asking their trade association to defend their honor.  But this matter is much bigger than the interests of the important but small prospect research profession.  This is actually an attack on the character of the nonprofit community generally and fundraising specifically.

And we have only ourselves to blame for it.

The truth is that the public does not understand how nonprofits work.  In the absence of that information, charities are placed on a pedestal.  Any misstep and we easily come crashing down in the eyes of the world.

The media, on the lookout for these missteps, is right to look at how nonprofits raise and spend money.  The problem is that they measure our success or failure by an idealized and ill-informed standard.

Where the Journal is right is in claiming that information gathered through the legal, ethical and efficiency-promoting process of prospect research can be used to personalize solicitation.  But rather than the scurrilous implication that different types of healthcare are administered on that basis, instead nonprofits employing research information can better understand the needs and interests of their constituents.

On one level, getting to know people is always uncomfortable.  We are asking questions and wondering when we may be crossing a line.  If done ethically, sensitively and with the donor in mind, however, it can and should be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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by jayfrost

May 19 10
  1. Very well put, Jay! The for-profit community uses the very same tools as we do, under the guise of “market research”. I even know of a friend whose home insurance premiums were affected because the insurance company used the google image technology to see a trampoline in their backyard.

    I had the good fortune in 2009 of having a news article written about me and the work I do to support the nonprofit community. The story ran in a NJ newspaper, The Courier News, and did not have anywhere near the negative spin as the WSJ article. if you are interested in perusing it again.

    Maria Semple, The Prospect Finder LLC

  2. Jay:

    Thanks so much for this great post. You said it perfectly!

    The double standard applied to nonprofits and their operations is annoying at best and debilitating at worst.

    I agree that we are partly to blame since we have done a bad job of explaining how the third sector operates to our external stakeholders (and even many internal ones).

    However, it’s been my experience that even with a good explanantion of how the nonprofit sector works, many are still unwilling to give up their idealized vision of nonprofits as somehow pure and above the “dirty” work of marketing and fundraising (our version of sales).

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful response to the WSJ.

  3. Elizabeth Crabtree permalink

    Jay, thanks so much for your thoughtful remarks.

  4. Jay, here’s APRA’s official response to the article you have referenced. Thanks for reprinting it:


    Anne Kadet’s recent article about research in philanthropic organizations (Smart Money: Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You? (May 16, 2010)) misrepresents the scope and purpose of donor research, and as a result misleads Journal readers about its nature and use.

    Like so many, we share a deep concern for and sensitivity to personal privacy and identity security. That’s why in addition to complying with all legal requirements, including legislation such as FERPA and HIPAA, professional researchers also adhere to thoughtful ethical guidelines about how information should be gathered and used. A deep-seated concern for individual privacy is also why we and our organizations are fundamentally committed to maintaining the confidentiality of personal data that our donors have shared with us.

    The nonprofits we work for aspire to be as effectively managed as for-profit organizations, using technology, market research, and smart business skills to flourish when resources are constrained. Research and analytics help charities use staff, volunteer time, and marketing resources as carefully and effectively as possible. Information we gather and use is obtained from publicly available sources–sources accessible to anyone reading this article. Fundraising researchers can no more be considered ‘spying’ on donors than the Journal can be considered ‘spying’ when it analyzes an SEC document or reports on a public court filing.

    We encourage those who would like to learn more about the profession, our work to serve the public good, and our ethical commitment, to visit the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) at

    Deborah L. Mueller
    APRA President

    Robert D. Scott
    APRA President-elect

  5. Anne Barnett Rhodes permalink

    Splendid rebuttal to a shabby piece of journalism. Thanks!

  6. Patti Whitford permalink

    Thank you Jay….your calming and thoughtful remarks are greatly appreciated.

  7. Nice post, Jay. I would add that security and privacy sensitivity is on the rise overall, not just in the nonprofit sector — Facebook’s recent woes would be a great example of the general public’s perceived abuse of privacy and security. My mom, who has no interest in a computer, let alone Facebook, called me to warn about privacy problems on the site. This is not a user-only issue anymore.

    While donors’ rights documents address the use of confidential information “to the extent provided by law”, the churn of new interconnected media and data-sharing techniques in all sectors could be said to out-pace nonprofits’ and legal efforts to provide a confidential haven for research and giving information. Again, the Facebook equivalent of this concern is the Instant Personalization launch which brought in more than 800 collaborative sites within the first few weeks to great success overall. Yet these other sites may or may not have good security practices and policies (nor are they vetted for them), and they are seeing data automatically if Facebook users do not opt out. And Facebook users many do not know they can or how to opt out of this pilot program and the other privacy options.

    So, as much as the WSJ article was a bit slapdash and, quite frankly, condescending to major and principal donor populations in their subscriber list, the overall concerns will continue to grow in all sectors. The nonprofit world needs guidance about how to keep pace with this evolution at the same time it is collecting and using the data that helps donors make their best gifts.

    (and I love the research and the educational outreach from and other sector tech associations in this area — this outreach is worth a nice gift to these associations, don’t you think?)

  8. Jay – thanks for drawing my attention to you great post. I do understand why nonprofits are held to different standards – what we are supposed to accomplish is fundamentally different than the for-profit sector. But there needs to be some clarity here – what standards should be different? What should not?

    For example – for profits are not generally berated for spending money on things like, say, computers and office supplies, in the way that nonprofits are.

    And why can’t nonprofits use publicly available data to make their fundraising more efficient so that they can spend more time meeting mission? Isn’t that what the public wants – for us to spend less time fundraising?

    Ultimately to me, this was just cheap journalism with a cheap headline. The conversation about privacy is one we need to have in this sector, but in a toughtful way, not an inflammatory way.

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