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From social media to blogs to 24/7 news services, there is more information on people available than ever before. You just have to know how to look for it.

Some people know how to block their online profiles from public view or limit the exposure of any online content about them. This is less a problem of making friends than it is a conundrum for prospect researchers who are trying to learn as much as they can about potential donors. Should nonprofits seek ways to obtain the purposefully hidden information? What are the limits to any workarounds?

The ethics of any topic is a debate that could last forever, but your organization doesn’t have forever to figure out right and wrong ways to raise money. You have a cause to fund, and without detailed donor profiles you can’t make the types of emotional pitches that excite donors about your organization.

We’ve compiled nine best practices to help your organization conduct prospect research in a way that’s both effective and respectful of sensitive information.

1) Focus on acceptable data

It’s obvious that you shouldn’t pursue records that are illegal to obtain, but just because certain records are legal doesn’t mean that you should be looking at them.

For example, you may be able to obtain criminal records on a prospect, but for what purpose? Prospect research is not about obtaining any and all donor information in the hope that some data point may be the nugget of gold that you’re looking for.

All data should follow two rules:

  1. Be appropriate and pertinent to the specific fundraising campaign and prospect.
  2. Protect all personal information at all times.

Don’t go after information, such as criminal records or divorce records, that won’t make a difference in fundraising appeals. In regards to the information that you do obtain, protect it. Donors don’t want their information available to anyone and everyone.

2) Seek data that deepens relationships

The previous section discussed abstaining from obtaining unnecessary information. This section will discuss what you should go after and why.

There is no set answer to any one data type that you need. There is optimal donor data, but you won’t need real estate information or stock holdings or spousal information on every donor. What you need depends on who you are, who your prospect is, and what type of fundraising campaign you’re running.

Ask yourself:

  1. Why am I raising money?
  2. Who is my prospect?
  3. What do I need to know to get this prospect to respond to my fundraising appeal?

Obtain the information that answers these questions, and other information that is directly relevant to formulating a more individualized, on-task ask strategy. The goal of prospect research is to find the right information, not any and all data. Plan ahead so that you know exactly what you need to learn. Not only will this save you time and resources, but you won’t be overwhelmed by unnecessary data and subsequently have to protect more data than you bargained for.

3) Gather data the right way

A good rule to follow is that if it feels like a bad way to conduct research then it is likely wrong.

When a donor provides you with information, or when you obtain information from an outside source, you’re entering into a relationship of trust. Not only do you need to protect that information, but you’re expected to obtain your data in a way that does not violate anyone’s privacy.

Social media is a new outlet where donor information is widely available. While it’s tempting to ‘friend’ or connect with prospects to learn more, there are boundaries to how far you can go. Aside from gathering information, your nonprofit also has to be careful not to share any private information.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals provides a code of ethical standards for prospect researchers and development professionals to follow. APRA offers an ethical code, too.

4) Restrict access to prospect/donor information

Everyone can search Google, browse Facebook profiles, and read blogs, but some information is kept private for a reason.

Whether it’s within your organization or across organizations, you must enact measures to keep any and all data private. Not everyone on your staff needs to know every little detail about a donor, and donors don’t want their information to be available to fundraisers at any organization.

5) Obtain verbal confirmations and fact check

With so much information out there, it’s hard to know what’s being gathered from where and whether or not any data is accurate or not. For both general information and personal details, it’s important to check your facts.

Verbal confirmation can either come from the donor or you can call the author of an article or the publisher of the data that you’re using and request confirmation of the accuracy of the information. It’s extra work, but it’s worth it for data that could boost your ask strategy.

Verbal confirmation is supremely important for sensitive donor information. This is not so much an issue of accuracy as it is a matter of pertinence to your campaign. Before using personal information, whether in an appeal or for other purposes, check with the primary fundraiser for that prospect and figure out if you really need that information.

When you read about a prospect on a website or blog, where are those facts coming from? Check the sources, and if you can’t confirm facts then throw them out. It’s not worth it to risk your fundraising appeal on uncertain facts when you can undoubtedly obtain plenty of useful information from more reliable sources.

Also, be wary of vague words, such as, ‘large’, ‘wealthy’, and, ‘leader’. Descriptors can either be relative, and thus misleading or plain false, and thus even more misleading.

If you can’t confirm a fact then don’t use it. Primary sources work best when confirming information, but so long as you can say with 100% certainty that a fact is true then it’s fine to use. However, remember not to go chasing information that you don’t need, especially if that information is difficult to validate.

6) Use data effectively

People may not question how you learned certain facts, but they will worry if they feel you know too much or have obtained their information in an unfamiliar manner. You do not want to make donors feel uncomfortable.

If people do ask why you’ve obtained certain information, then explain to them how that specific data aids your fundraising efforts. Also, share the overarching reason why any nonprofit obtains any donor data.

Nonprofits use money to support good causes, and many donors like to know that their money is going directly towards fighting for that cause and not towards administrative expenses. One goal of prospect research is to lower a nonprofit’s cost to raise a dollar (CRD) so that more money does go towards fulfilling the organization’s actual mission.

When people know that you’re a responsible organization that knows how to manage both money and information, they should be more receptive to fundraising appeals.

7) Transparency reigns

The above section expands into the idea of maintaining an identity of transparency about your prospect research. Trust builds relationships, and if you can’t look donors in the eye and tell them how or why you obtained certain information then they can’t trust you, and you likely won’t receive donations.

Transparency is your friend. People like nonprofits. Nonprofits do good things for the world and people want to support them.

Tell people why you’re searching high and low for certain information. Let them know how you’re searching, as it shouldn’t feel odd to share ethical practices. Sometimes people just want to know how or why something is done. Your honesty can build the necessary trust that puts donors at ease and leads to long awaited donations.

8) Hire high quality people

The best way to execute ethical prospect research is to have good people on your staff. That starts with hiring trustworthy individuals who understand the importance of privacy and acceptable behavior. These people will not only help your organization to define best practices for prospect research, but they will act in line with your policies and affirm to the rest of the organization what proper prospect research should look like.

Furthermore, good people can help to train your other staff to be better about prospect research. Encourage your researchers to:

  1. Lead by example
  2. Share pro tips with peers
  3. Provide intensive training sessions so that your entire staff knows what is and is not appropriate

In the medical world, fitness is a type of preventative health. Fitness keeps you healthy, so you don’t get sick, which means that doctors don’t have to figure out how to make you better. Having trustworthy and ethical staff in place is preventative health for your nonprofit. These people will ensure that your nonprofit is operating right, so outside parties don’t have to intervene to fix things.

9) Evaluate your conduct

One of the more questionable prospect research practices is finding workarounds to information that would otherwise be unobtainable.

For example, many nonprofit hospitals operate Grateful Patient Programs. Knowing the ailments of prospects might help a fundraiser to relate and build a relationship, but privacy laws state that fundraisers are not supposed to know why someone is in the hospital. However, patients are free to discuss their illnesses.

Thus, development staff can find ways to encourage patients to discuss their reasons for hospitalization. While this is a fair practice, so long as donors willingly reveal the information, it’s treading the line between what information a nonprofit should learn and what stones they should leave unturned.

It’s important to evaluate the conduct of your nonprofit every so often. Evaluations ensure that your staff and their practices comply with how you wish to operate as an ethical nonprofit. If things are being done wrong, or could be viewed poorly by donors and reduce their chances of making donations, such as with the hospital example, then an evaluation can tell you what’s wrong. Then you can figure out how to fix the issues.

Privacy is a huge concern for your donors. Good prospect researchers will obtain only relevant information and do so in ways that won’t make donors feel uncomfortable.

If you’re new to prospect research or would would like to learn more, then we invite you to schedule a demo with a member of our dedicated staff today.

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9 Rules for Ethical Prospect Research