May 25, 2010

Charities Spying? The Data-Mining Debate

It was a catchy headline, the kind that makes your friends say, "Hey, did you see that article in SmartMoney, 'Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You?'" And you've got to give the author, Anne Kadet, credit for coming up with some colorful tidbits in what could have otherwise been a dull account of how fundraisers research potential major donors. My personal favorites were what I'll call the "swimming pool example" and the "major donor in the hospital example."

In the swimming pool example, Kadet says that the "increasingly sophisticated technology" used by prospect researchers includes using "satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool." The bigger your pool, one presumes, the greater your net worth. That's almost too good to be true. What a fun job, that lets the prospector sit around and ogle people's properties from above! Is that a Rodin sculpture in their back yard? A Maserati in the driveway?

Unfortunately, I suspect that such efforts more often yield views of rooftops and cement. And let's not forget that anyone and everyone can use the same technology to view the exact same things, and for much less socially useful purposes than making sure to ask an appropriate amount when soliciting a donation to the homeowner's favorite cause. 

Now for the major donor in the hospital story. The article says that, when wealthy patients are admitted, they "may enjoy a bedside visit from a 'patient relations director' who offers concierge services. Extra pillow? Free parking passes for visiting friends? The director will make it happen."

By the way, I'm quoting here from the print version of the article in the June, 2010 issue of SmartMoney -- the online version was shortened a good bit.

That example, if true, is admittedly shocking. It's one thing to use research to help design an approach that's attuned to the donor's financial and personal situation, it's another to give special treatment to someone who is a client, not merely a supporter of one's life-sustaining services. The professional fundraising community has been expressing outrage at the article in general -- for example, see  the Working Philanthropy Blog, quoting the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement's statement, and Sarah Connor-Smith's defense in her InFomentation blog -- but I haven't seen anyone address this part of the article head on.

The bottom line, of course, is that we're in a society that hasn't yet come to terms with the amount of information that can be discovered about each of us via public records, most of them available online, via a few taps on the keyboard. So of course we may feel spied upon, whether we find out that it's a nonprofit doing the information gathering or, more likely, a credit card company or retail catalog mailer.  Until we all get more comfortable with that fact, the real takeaway from this article is simply that nonprofits must continue to employ information gained via such research with subtlety and care, following the ethical guidelines already widely employed. (I guess opening a meeting with, "Dude, big pool you've got there," is out.)