Tag Archives: ethics

Organization Loses Donor Trust – With Data Breach!

keyboard-895556_1920Whether it’s a personal story or a media headline, we’ve all heard of incidents where data was mishandled or misunderstood and donors felt betrayed. And yet, many development and advancement offices continue to place little value on their information and data.
When I followed up with one of the beta testers for the Prospect Research Institute’s first-ever online class, Introduction to Prospect Profiles, she told me how thankful she was for the opportunity to take the class. Now she knew for certain that prospect research was NOT for her and she would seek a different career. Why? She couldn’t delve into other people’s lives that much. Privacy was sacred to her.
I didn’t think too much of it, but since then two more students have expressed discomfort about privacy issues. Because, of course, we cover this in the class; we walk right out there to examine the legal and ethical edges of privacy in fundraising research.
Why are prospective prospect research professionals nervous about privacy?
Could it be they don’t trust organizations to do the right thing with information? You know fundraising is predicated on trust – donors trust us to use their money for the greater good. Staff must also trust the organization to use its data and resources appropriately.
When prospect research is treated as a clerical function, anyone can do it, low-paid, and not heard – that translates to the same message about the information prospect research finds. Quite a few of my course participants are self-paid. And then they learn how deep we researchers can go. And then they see the dark edges of ethics. And they get uncomfortable.

If you are in the development or fundraising office, you are in a position to begin changing the culture of respect and trust toward your organization’s data.

You can leverage prospect research to (a) manage information legally and ethically, (b) lead with diversity and inclusion, and (c) use data persuasively to raise more money. How? Let me count the ways!
  1. Data Management: Prospect Research Professionals are uniquely positioned to research and be a part of the team creating information management policies that ensure your data is used and maintained effectively. This is the era of Big Data and your researcher is versed in mining the gold from it.
  2. Data Protection:The more important data becomes, the higher the risk that it will be breached and erode your donors’ faith in your organization’s ability to protect their information. Your prospect research professional is your trusted guide, helping you to navigate and translate vendor and IT products and jargon. S/he is also the voice helping you to create different levels of data access, such as who can print profiles, with how much information in them, and do what with them.
  3. Non-Traditional Donors: We’ve been using wealth screenings effectively, but it’s time to recognize that this identification method is limited. Encourage your researcher to work with you to identify non-traditional indicators of wealth. That means conversations, but it also means assigning and actively pursuing those minority prospects, too. If there is wealth there, why are you ignoring them?
  4. Relationship Mapping: This is a broad term for what requires a great deal of sweat equity, but software is inching forward to make it better and faster. Understanding the relationships among your major gift donors could be a healthy disruption to your usual processes. Understanding and learning to leverage the power of your other donor groups’ relationships could transform your organization’s fundraising reach! If you are not building the capacity for fundraising analytics to discover patterns such as these relationships, you will be left behind.
  5. Persuade with Data: Yes, you can work with your prospect research professional to illustrate the data that answers questions and use this to persuade donors to give. Infographics are particularly popular. But let’s use data to put a stop to fickle fundraising. How many times do you change strategies based on “I feel” or “s/he said” or “they say”? Use your prospect research professional’s analytical prowess to methodically gather data of all kinds to help leadership form a strategy it can stick to – and win. Jason Briggs outlines this brilliantly in his article on international research.
I’ve had clients learn the hard way. Initially shocked by my prices, they come back when they receive shoddy work from someone who has low rates, but lacks the skills and resources. The value of really good prospect research becomes clear when you receive synthesized information that gives you direction to raise more money.
Your organization needs a well-trained prospect research professional with an excellent ethical compass. Are you driving your best hiring prospects away by sending the message that information is cheap and anyone can turn that information into fundraising action?

Researcher Sued for Scraping!

Can you imagine if that headline was about you? How would that impact your organization and your fundraising career? Would it be fatal or a blip in the radar?

I’m an emotional person. Because of this I could easily spend hours chatting about the law and ethics. But when I talk with a highly analytical, logical person, the conversation is usually quite short. Is it legal? Is it public? What’s the problem? Emotions! That’s what!

No matter what your personality type, the only thing that really matters is what your donors and the community believe. Because if they perceive that you have done something unethical and possibly illegal it can be very damaging to your fundraising revenue, not to mention the organization as a whole.

Sarah Bernstein did a very good job of examining the APRA Social Media Ethics Statement so I won’t go over that here. Instead I’d like to have a very specific conversation evaluating a specific situation – scraping on LinkedIn.

Scraping LinkedIn

I’m not starting this conversation. That already happened on the PRSPCT-L list-serv. You can search the archives for these threads:

  • Using Scraper with LinkedIn
  • Experience with ProspectVisual’s LinkedIn Alumni Employment Info?
  • INFO: LinkedIn.com and permitted uses

As a prospect research professional I would love to have a way to get all that wonderful LinkedIn data in a format that I could use for analysis!

According to Wikipedia, Web Scraping is a software technique that simulates human exploration of the web and transforms unstructured data on the web, typically in HTML format, into structured data that can be stored and analyzed in a central local database or spreadsheet. Because it is automated the software can process large amounts of information.

An example of successful scraping we take for granted are the giving databases we subscribe to. We know that the vendor scours the web for giving recognition reports and other public information about giving. The vendor indexes the information and we merrily search the resulting database.

LinkedIn Public Profiles

The first question in the LinkedIn Scraping discussion is whether the information being scraped is from the outside of the service – the public-facing side – or whether it is being scraped from behind the login – the private-facing side.

ProspectVisual, a relationship mapping software, scrapes LinkedIn data from the public-facing side. ProspectVisual never logs in to the software. It doesn’t have to. For example, my LinkedIn profile is almost 100% public. You can find my LinkedIn profile on a Google search and never login.

At the very beginning of the LinkedIn User Agreement in Section 1.2 it states:

You agree that by clicking “Join Now” “Join LinkedIn”, “Sign Up” or similar, registering, accessing or using our services…you are entering into a legally binding agreement.





ProspectVisual never enters into the agreement. That’s quite clear and simple from a legal perspective. And given the prospect research field’s warm embrace of many other vendors who scrape the web, it would seem it passes the ethical test too.

LinkedIn Private Profiles

Once you login to LinkedIn you are now bound by the LinkedIn User Agreement.  A search in the agreement for the word “scrape” brings up this line under Section 8.2, the things you promise NOT to do:

Scrape or copy profiles and information of others through any means (including crawlers, browser plugins and add-ons, and any other technology or manual work);





The question on the list-serv was whether it was okay to login and scrape small amounts of data for the purpose of identifying new prospects for the nonprofit organization.


It could easily be argued that this scraping is illegal and violates the user agreement because scraping, automated or manual, implies taking a bulk of data from LinkedIn and transferring it for another purpose.


But how much data or at what frequency crosses the line into scraping territory? And if you are not scraping information to re-sell it, but instead to further your fundraising, is that a use that is either appropriate or unlikely to be prosecuted?

Ethical or Unethical?

If it is unclear whether our scraping data when bound by the user agreement is illegal or not, is it ethical to continue scraping? How would our donors and network feel about the way we are accessing the data they have placed behind the LinkedIn login?

Healthy Conversation

Ethics stirs emotions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t engage in healthy conversation. I was delighted that the most recent thread had all the hallmarks of a mature debate:

  • Asking lots of questions
  • Making statements based on found information, not pure emotion
  • Not disagreeing quickly, but working to be sure you understood the other person
  • Recognizing that others may disagree in part or in whole and that’s okay

Now at your next staff meeting you have a juicy topic to bring up under “New Business”. And if you are a blogger, maybe there’s a piece of this conversation you’d like to take on?

More Articles You Might Like

Data Privacy – Biting the Donor Hand

On March 27, 2012, The New York Times ran two articles on its front page: “U.S. Agency Seeks Tougher Consumer Privacy Rules” and “Private Schools Mine Parents’ Data, and Wallets”. I was standing in line at Starbucks when it caught my eye. There have been a number of similar privacy-gone-awry stories in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers across the country and it seems to be intensifying.

As a professional fundraiser, prospect researcher and donor, this news tactic hits a raw nerve. Yes, data and privacy issues should be reaching a crescendo as the online activities of great masses of people are creating a less-than-regulated world of data collection and sale across the U.S. and around the globe. But why pick on not-for-profit organizations especially?

Donor trust is the backbone of not-for-profit organizations. Without community support an organization is derailed and its mission discounted. This means that when an organization abuses donor or public trust, it is a very juicy news story indeed. But what kind of data transactions are really going on behind closed doors and what can donors do to ensure their favorite organizations are behaving appropriately?

Online activity in social media, shopping, gaming, reading and so many other activities has reached a critical scale. The numbers of participants are so big that meaningful information can be extracted from our behavior as it is tracked online and offline. For-profit companies are beginning to make exceptional use of this opportunity, as one might imagine. In 2011, The Economist magazine suggested how Europe’s Tesco appears to be using its retail sales information from loyalty cards to inform its recent auto insurance underwriting.

But not-for-profit organizations are not selling you a widget and are not involved in helping you get insurance. Not-for-profit organizations are attempting to achieve a mission of value to fulfill needs in your local or global community. They are data-mining to more efficiently raise money and that should translate into lower costs and higher dollars in gifts. Overwhelming, donors tell organizations that they want less money spent on “costs”; they want organizations to be efficient, just like the for-profit world.

What do we like about our favorite for-profits? They deliver good product, they treat us well (if not great), and we trust them. Same goes for not-for-profits. Except that trust takes on a much deeper meaning. Not-for-profits help those most vulnerable in the world and therefore they must be beyond reproach. Added to that is that I am GIVING them my hard-earned dollars!

Most data-mining efforts in the not-for-profit world attempt to prioritize donors and prospects so that those “most likely to be interested” and those “most able to make a gift” are approached for all of the different activities of the organization. This ranges from mail appeals, event invitations, online and offline content development, and, yes, major gift prospect initiatives.

Data-mining fails the donor (and the organization) in two primary situations:

  1. When the information is wrong – common names and other circumstances foil the best systems and the most skilled researchers
  2. When the fundraising program is not operating effectively

The donor needs to pay the most attention to item #2. As a donor or prospective donor, if you ever feel disrespected, insulted or otherwise uncomfortable you have to ask yourself: Is this the way in which the entire organization operates? The two premier associations for fundraisers and prospect researchers provide guidelines for the ethical treatment of donors and all the information wrapped around them. You can check them out here: AFP and APRA.

If you trust the board of directors, adore the program staff and witness the terrific results of the organization, why would you be worried about their data-mining practices? Most likely it would never cross your mind — until you pick up The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. And a professional fundraising office, like the one at your favorite not-for-profit, would be more than happy to discuss its data-mining, data collection and data privacy practices with you.

I would rather the news focus on for-profit companies and their secretive and very profitable data-mining practices, but if they are going to pick on not-for-profits — well, let’s use this as an opportunity to have some great discussions with our favorite not-for-profits and our favorite donors. Transparency in the not-for-profit world is the best weapon to secure and defend donor trust!

If you have a story about how you have used privacy concerns to have a reassuring conversation with your not-for-profit or your donor, please share! Those are the kinds of stories I wish the newspapers would include in their articles – even if they only drop them in at the end. We want fair representation!


For a fun 7-minute video on Privacy and Prospect research, click the movie below:


5 Steps to Fundraising Research Ethics

You wouldn’t slap your donor prospect in the face would you? Of course not!

Donor Trust: Don't Lose It!

Maintaining donor trust relies upon building professional and respectful relationships between your organization and the world. Without trust there would be no giving. Without giving, charitable missions would be unfulfilled. It’s that simple.

It’s also surprisingly easy to slip down the slippery ethical slope. And a donor could feel slapped in the face by some of the information you record. Why not use your personal email to request information? Does it really matter if you use those software subscriptions to look-up your annoying neighbor?

Here are 5 steps to keep you on the ethical track:

(1)  Always identify yourself
Whenever you are making requests for information you need to identify yourself. State your name, your role, and your organization. Like this: “Hello, my name is Jennifer Filla and I’m president of Aspire Research Group. I’d like to confirm the owner of a parcel of land in your county.” If this makes you uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t be inquiring!

(2) Information recorded must deepen the donor prospect relationship
The whole point of researching donor prospects is to bring the organization and prospect closer together to further the mission – usually through a gift. So if the information found will not bring the two closer, don’t include it.That said, there are exceptions…

(3)  Discuss sensitive information verbally before documenting
When information about an arrest in the prospect’s family or some other sensitive information comes to light, it can be difficult to decide whether it is relevant to the relationship. Especially with naming rights, there is the possibility of a conflict of interest. Talking it over with leadership or the person building the donor relationship helps you confirm before documenting something embarrassing.

(4) Information must be exactly accurate
Be careful to use primary sources and to avoid using value-laden terms. For example, if a blog post says good or bad things about your prospect that you can not confirm elsewhere, don’t include it because it is an undocumented opinion. If a website claims it is a “leading” supplier or the “largest in the country”, either find the source to prove it or remove those words. If Wikipedia says it’s true, click through the footnotes at the bottom to read the original sources and be sure.

(5)  Treat researched information as confidential as donations
Just because you found all of this information in the public domain doesn’t mean it isn’t confidential in the form you have created. We don’t want our donors to feel creepy about the data we collect about them! That will not build trust. We want them to feel professionally handled, flattered and protected by us and our organizations.

Aspire Research Group is a member of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA), a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and endorses the Code of Ethical Principles and Standards of both organizations.

If you would like to learn more, why not watch the fun 7-minute video on ethics and prospect research below?

Facial Recognition Software & Donors

Does facial recognition software violate our privacy? What if we want to use it on donor prospects? The Economist wrote an article, Anonymous No More, in its 7/30/11 issue. It describes how facial recognition software has improved to the point that in the best scenarios you can feed a picture into it and discover personal information on one-third of individuals. Now, obviously, that means that two-thirds remain “anonymous”, but it does demonstrate that picture-based research is viable and will improve.

As it stands now, I start with personal information (name and address or occupation) and find my way to a matching photo. In the not-to-distant future I can imagine subscribing to software that allows me to take fundraising event photos and identify the people in them – perhaps even automatically screening them for wealth.

Now try to guess who has developed a facial recognition search engine? You guessed it! Google. But they have decided not to release it. Why? Because of the sensitivity around the subject of… [drum roll]… privacy! Now try to guess who isn’t afraid to use facial recognition. Facebook. U.S. Government. Prospect researchers? Hmmm.

Is there privacy left to care about?

It is very clear that the media likes to wheeze on about privacy (even in light of the recent Murdoch news scandals) and equally clear that most of humanity really does not care about privacy. We are happy to trade our personal information for discounts, convenience and even fun. Or are we? Mostly we are okay giving away personal information when we are asked and get something we value in return. It’s when we get duped, fooled, or humiliated that our hair stands on end. And I am grateful to the journalists who report on those abuses.

When does privacy really matter?

If your donors feel that their privacy has been compromised by you they will stop giving. Worse, they might start saying bad things about your organization and get others to stop giving. Privacy matters.

Having a donor privacy policy will go a long way toward helping your organization communicate its actions with donors, but it is not enough to keep you out of trouble. Common sense, empathy and good recordkeeping are required.

For example, just because you found your donor’s unlisted telephone number on her voter’s registration record doesn’t mean she won’t be offended when your president calls her asking for a visit. Was it found in the public domain – yes. Was it in the donor record as a contact number – yes. Did the donor feel her privacy was violated – YES! There are no shortcuts to establishing meaningful relationships.

Facial recognition software is most likely going to do “quiet” tasks like match faces from our organization Facebook pages or constituent forums with photos in our donor database to create deeper relationship maps. That’s not nearly as scintillating as using event photos to identify wealthy prospects, is it? But it is more efficient and respectful.

More info on ethics and privacy:

Aspire Research Group’s Ethics Video
Letter to Board Members on Privacy and Prospect Research
APRA Statement of Ethics
AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards

Are you headed for handcuffs?

Latour “LT” Lafferty

What would you want to know about ethics from a white collar crime lawyer? I had the privilege of hearing Latour “LT” Lafferty who practices with Fowler White Boggs, give me an inside look at the downward slide away from integrity and some practical advice on how to avoid it, when he presented at the June 21, 2011 luncheon for Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Suncoast chapter.

Most interesting was Lafferty’s perspective of the white collar criminal. He suggested that these are not bad people. In fact they are just like us and the people we work with. What has happened is that their unethical behavior has built up like a snowball rolling downhill in a snow storm.

The example that Lafferty gave us was simple. Say that a person submits travel or business expenses that fall slightly outside the parameters, and he is not corrected. Perhaps he is even informally rewarded. Maybe “everyone” in the organization pads expenses. He continues to submit expenses that are farther and farther out of bounds until – bam! – he is investigated for his fraud and labeled a criminal.

How do we counter this behavior? Lafferty tells us that according to John Maxwell who wrote the book, A Winning Environment, we can:

  • Hire people of good character
  • Train them
  • Inspire them with good leadership

Lafferty encouraged us to evaluate our organization’s culture and to lead in ethical behavior. He tells us that if we don’t expect, demand and reward ethical behavior, we are at risk of destroying our donor’s trust and our organization’s ability to thrive and achieve its mission. Yikes! I won’t name names, but we all know the organizations that have made the news headlines. The risk is real.

So what does that mean for the prospect researcher? While more and more researchers are finding their way to the management table many of us may feel we have little influence. I am a member of the PRSPCT-L community and the ethics issues raised online are very real and are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. I believe anyone of any position in life can model ethics. Here’s how:

Care about ethics: Care that the donor prospects you research are treated with respect and dignity –by you!

Educate yourself: Maybe your organization won’t or can’t send to you APRA’s sensational conference, but you can participate in the list-serv discussions and read about issues of privacy and data generally –it’s everywhere! (Even Aspire Research Group has a fun 7-min. video on ethics)

Lead: Yes, I’m talking to you. All of us can lead. Open your mouth when talk of data and research arises. We can tell stories and introduce empathy with comments such as, “I read about that, but I didn’t put it in the profile because I would be so upset if someone treated me that way”.

We won’t always be heard. We won’t always be able to change the culture of our organizations. We will always be able to plant our ethical seeds and nurture them in ourselves and others. I can live with that. How about you?

Selling Anonymous Donor Info – for or against?

Today the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether or not to uphold Vermont’s law against selling prescription info to data mining companies. It’s a privacy issue with parallels to nonprofit fundraising – or is it? SCOTUSblog has a wonderfully readable account of the case.

In Vermont, when drug stores fill a doctor’s prescription they are required to record the doctor’s name and address, the name, dosage and quantity of the drug, the date and place where the prescription was filled, and the patient’s age and gender — but not patient name and address. Drug stores are required to keep this digital information and they make money selling it to data mining companies who sell it to the pharmaceutical industry who use it for marketing drugs. But the information is also available to insurance companies, medical research institutions, and law enforcement authorities. Vermont law keeps the information from the data mining companies, but not others.

So once again we have personal data, which many in the public perceive as being ill-used or over-used by huge corporations like big pharma, but which is also being used for important public benefits like disease tracking, clinical trials and law enforcement. Can we say no to one user and not another? Do we give up the benefits to keep the info completely private?

Although this case might seem far removed from the world of not-for-profit fundraising, it isn’t. Blackbaud is a huge corporation with the dominant market share of donor database software – Raiser’s Edge. And they are moving their customers online, which means Blackbaud holds the keys to your donor data. They conduct lots of useful fundraising industry research including their Index of Charitable Giving. Where do they get the info?

“Each month, we draw actual giving statistics from the databases of thousands of participating organizations using a variety of fundraising systems to determine how much revenue was raised in the prior month.”

I’m not sure if that means that they use their clients’ data with permission or whether they collect data from clients and non-clients. Does it matter? Nonprofits are providing their donor information to Blackbaud for research – but stripped of identifying information. Is it restricted to freely available research studies or do they also use it for commercial purposes? Does that matter?

In March of 2010 I wrote about Google’s use of “data dust”. I suggested we should be able to use our own “donor dust” to help create a better experience for our donors. But it makes me uncomfortable to think of the possibility of Blackbaud sweeping up our collective donor dust and then reselling it for profit or using it for their own marketing.

The question shares many similarities with  the prescription drug case in Vermont. There will be good and meaningful uses for following fundraising trends gleaned from a corporation’s clients’ donor data, but is it legal and is it ethical?

Are You a Leaky *Nonprofit* Corporation?

I’m often a little behind reading my subscription to the Economist, but I keep chugging along because they have so many brainy articles on things that often relate well to nonprofits and fundraising. Their article in February on The Leaky Corporation is no exception.

If you are awake then you are likely to have heard something about WikiLeaks in the past few months. Most recently WikiLeaks is threatening to leak documents from a bank that will expose wide-spread corrupt practices. As the bankers are sweating, the Economist discussed the myriad of options out there to protect data. But ultimately the suggestion was to decide what information is most critically private and focus on protecting it.

And what is more critically private than your donors’ personal information and giving history? Universities and hospitals have regulated layers of must-have data security, but thousands of nonprofit organizations do not. And more and more donor databases are hosted online. Even so, I would argue that the threats are more mundane than hackers. It is the accidental leak that poses perhaps the greatest threat to nonprofit organizations.

What hits the news harder than a laptop stolen that contained database or spreadsheet files full of names, addresses, social security numbers and other private info? But how about the university professor who posts a spreadsheet on a public server he thinks is private? Or the staff member who emails sensitive information to the wrong email address?

In my research I have found nonprofits who posted their confidential board list – the one with cell phone numbers, spouse names and more – on their website or attached to their public IRS Form 990. Out of pity and horror I emailed one webmaster suggesting they remove the file. I did not use the private information in my prospect profile.

There are thousands of examples of accidental errors, but what can you do to prevent them? Educate! Educating your staff and volunteers and then routinely reminding them goes a long way. Open discussion about something as simple as deleting old spreadsheet exports from your servers could avert disaster.

Consider purchasing a secure, online space for board members to view important documents instead of email and discuss the safety of any documents they download.

Establish one day a year devoted to security education and data storage clean-up so that everyone is talking, cleaning up old files, and reassigning files to safer storage space – online or offline.

Whatever you do, I hope you will seriously get thinking about your data security. Every time you hire a new employee, engage a new board member, or buy a new piece of software you face a certain degree of risk.

Aspire Research Group is committed to ethical fundraising and prospect research. Why not check out our fun, 7-minute video on ethics in prospect research? Click here.