A few weeks ago, the media was abuzz with news that Cambridge Analytica, a business that gleans and analyzes user information on social media giant, Facebook, accessed and used public personal information on behalf of political campaigns in the US and Britain. People were aghast when confronted with the reality that social media companies allow outside business partners to access their information. They were angry that their information was used to influence political advertising and marketing directed at them because of this type of analysis, enabled by algorithms created by tech companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others. They felt that their privacy was violated and their trust was betrayed by such manipulation. I find that a pretty natural reaction.
A week ago, I took part in a webinar about fundraising on the internet offered by a well known consulting business that serves the nonprofit community . One of the topics the speaker spoke about in his presentation was about using paid services provided by tech companies to locate potential donors on social media by looking for support given to similar organizations. If an individual gave to, say an animal rescue group in their past and posted about it, they would share your animal group’s paid advertising on that individual’s feed, and then your organization could track the individual’s interest in your group’s page or website. It’s a tactic that is used by many businesses and nonprofits alike.
When I decided to go into nonprofit development as a career, social media was relatively new, and I attended a number of workshops and trainings that encouraged using similar tactics to learn more about donors and potential donors. Speakers encouraged nonprofits to Google donors’ names and find out everything they could learn about the people they sought to support their missions. They told us to scour Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, and other networking sites to get a better idea of their interests, their family life, and where they are in their careers. They suggested using real estate sites to find out where they live to determine their value of their homes to get an idea of their wealth, and other information so we could be prepared to approach them for an ask. Even though it made perfect sense, it still seemed intrusive to me.
There are numerous consulting businesses that do that kind of research for a fee, and they have existed for years. This can be an efficient way for organizations to work, especially large nonprofits and colleges with thousands of potential supporters. There is a lot of information available on the Internet, and when you are dealing with such large numbers, using these types of businesses can be more cost effective than employing the numbers of workers that would be necessary to do this kind of research. They are what big data is all about.
Do donors know that they are being researched by nonprofits that they might not have any connection to? Is that research donor-centered or organizationally centered? Do organizations even consider these questions when they use services like these?
Nonprofits need information to make the best decisions to decide who they should approach to increase their support, but to me, this seems a bit invasive. If donors knew that many organizations use these methods, would they feel a close affinity to the cause or, like many on Facebook who were up in arms when they learned of Facebook’s partnerships with these data mining businesses, would they leave in disgust?
Personally, as a donor and a donor-centered fundraiser, I would prefer to get the information necessary to make these decisions directly from the donor. I’d prefer to speak to the donor in person or on the telephone. I’d ask them about their interests in the organization, how they decided to support us in the first place, get their opinions on our direction and where we might improve as an organization. I think donors may be more forthcoming in a personal setting, and would appreciate answering the questions themselves.
Maybe this is why I prefer to serve smaller organizations, so that I can ask these questions personally, and get the answers directly from donors. I don’t want to feel like I am spying on them behind their backs, because I believe that, if a donor thought I or my organization was researching them without their knowledge, trust would be lost. Without the foundation of trust, what hope for a lasting relationship with that donor would there be?