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The beginning of a beautiful friendship

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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