Shortly after I moved to Oregon in the mid 1980s, I met a guy who was the childhood friend of a mutual friend. We had a good deal in common, including our musical tastes, our love for the great outdoors, and drinking good beer. We went to Grateful Dead concerts with our group of friends, and camped in the mountains of Oregon every year where we would hike, play drums around the campfire, and drink a lot of craft beer. We became pretty good friends over the years.
About ten years later, a woman I knew since childhood moved to the area. She was intelligent, educated, and very attractive, and since I was married, I thought they might make a nice couple. When I asked him if he might be interested in meeting her, he politely declined. He didn’t say why, and I didn’t press him for an answer.
A couple years later, while drinking a beer by the campfire, the wife of a mutual friend let it slip that my friend was gay. Her husband had shared that information with her, and I guess she assumed that it was common knowledge.
In all the years I knew him, my friend never told me. Maybe he thought I would think differently about him, or maybe he just wanted to keep that aspect of his life private. For what ever reason he had, he kept that information to himself, and it really wasn’t my business. Unfortunately, our friend’s wife unknowingly ended his privacy, and if I were a different kind of person, it could have detrimentally affected our relationship.
Over the years, I have had similar experiences in the fundraising field. At networking events, I have heard professionals discussing prospects and the size of gifts they hoped to get from them. At a holiday party, I overheard a staff member discussing the unlikelihood of getting further gifts from a donor due to a contentious divorce the individual was going through, and what the staff member believed had caused the break up. I have been present when fundraisers discussed how difficult particular donors were to work with because they were explicit about which programs they wanted their money to support. I felt awkward hearing these conversations.
The fact is, these conversations should not have occurred. Just as lawyers have to keep their clients’ information private and priests cannot disclose what they hear in confession, development professionals have an obligation not to talk publicly about their donors. The AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards states “Members shall not disclose privileged or confidential information to unauthorized parties.” That means we should not be discussing donors, their gifts, or their private lives to our friends, our associates, our spouses, or as I pointed out in my initial post in this series, “You Can’t Take Them with You“, potential employers.
Professionally, we should be treating any and all donor information as confidential information. We should not discuss our donors outside our development offices, and when we do discuss them, it should only be with development staff, the Executive Director, and perhaps the members of the Development Committee on the Board. We definitely should not discuss our prospects financial history and ability to give with others, and we definitely should not gossip about those who support us. The only time we can speak about our donors publicly is when we have explicit authorization from those donors.
“Loose lips sink ships”was a slogan used during World War II to remind people not to discuss publicly the whereabouts of the troops or tentative actions they might take. Spies stationed in the states could have been anywhere and could have shared the information with the Axis military. If you talk about donors in a public place or with an unauthorized individual, how do you know it might not get back to your donor? The person sitting at the table behind you may be the donor, their friend, their spouse, or a business associate. You might be surprised how small a community can be. How do you know that the person you share the information with will not let it slip out to the wrong person, just like the wife of my friend?