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Is It Ethical To Snoop On Donors' Social Media?

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on Feb 16, 2016 10:00:00 AM

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What fundraisers and researchers need to know to avoid donor blunders.

Picture this: you’re going on a blind date. You sit down and order a round of drinks, but before you can say “cabernet sauvignon, your date starts listing off every detail of your life and history and asking you about them.

Uhhhh, check please!

That’s the world we all live in today.

That includes your donors.

Social media and the internet have opened a whole can of worms when it comes to our private lives and it’s left us split between two worlds.

On one side, information is freely available for all on social media. It allows us to share thoughts, pictures, and experiences far and wide with nothing more than a device we keep in our pocket.

However, this rapid expansion of technology has also forced us to question what should remain private and what should be out in the open.

Typically, it isn’t until a piece of data or personal moment from our lives has been abused that our ideas about privacy are challenged. But once that line has been crossed, we realize just how much information is out there, and we question whether those social media status updates were worth it.

This situation becomes even more fraught when brought into the realm of nonprofit donor research.

Social media can provide information that is indispensable for fundraisers, and it’s a nonprofit’s responsibility to do their research on a potential donor so that they can effectively reach out and offer relevant opportunities to potential major donors.

But is it ethical to dig through social media profiles?

As with most deeply complicated issues, there is no simple yes or no answer.

Digging Deep...But Too Deep?

When you’re around the development world all day, prospect research feels like a very normal aspect of the fundraising process. Afterall, nonprofits are often dealing with mountains of information and potential donors. They need to know who to spend time with in order to connect with people who are most likely to be partners and supporters of their cause.

And the way you do this is by looking for three indicators: Are they connected to your cause? Can they afford to give at a level that will make a big impact for your cause? Are they the kind of person who makes donations?

Otherwise known as Linkage, Ability, and Inclination.

Finding this information inevitably involves diving into data that, while publically available, would not be the kind of information to ask someone about at a networking event.

How much do they pay in taxes on their home?

What kind of stock holdings do they own?

How much did this fancy yacht cost?

Can I ride on this fancy yacht? (wait, don’t ask this one…)

Given the nature of this information, researchers and fundraisers alike are obligated to treat it with the respect and confidentiality it warrants, bound by the requirements set out by their professional associations.

**I'm writing a guide to LinkedIn for fundraisers! Click here to pre-order (it's free)!**

While this information is sensitive, it’s generally well-known (particularly among the wealthy) that this information is indeed public.

But social media data introduces a new twist.

Is It Ethical To Investigate Social Media Profiles of Donors?

Social media data complicates this issue.

There are two real sticking points that cause people to feel violated when their social media profiles are dug through: who’s doing the digging, and a person’s expectation of privacy.

Let’s look at that first point.

Who’s Doing The Digging?

Our perception of privacy is often dependant on our relationship with the person accessing our information.

I have no issues with a doctor (even if it’s my first time seeing her) knowing about my medical history.

I have a big problem with my barista knowing my medical history.

The same is true with our online information, even the data that is freely available and public.

In fact, 80% of social media users say that are concerned with third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share online.

And if you think that’s all just older users, guess again. 18 - 29 year olds put a higher priority on privacy online than any other age group.

So context is important.

The reason for concern among social media users isn’t simply that advertisers or businesses have access to this data, it’s how they’ll use this data. Sure, many times it’s harmless, like showing me an ad for a restaurant in New York City, given that’s where I live.

But other times it can feel a bit more invasive, like when Target predicted a teenager was pregnant based on her purchases, upsetting her father whom she had not yet broken the news to.

Now, where do nonprofits fit into that model?

An individual’s relationship with a nonprofit is going to be different than their relationship with a random business throwing ads their way, particularly if they have some form of a prior relationship with the nonprofit (as is often the case when prospect researchers are involved).

So it’s reasonable to assume the context of this relationship will change how a person perceives their data being combed through and utilized.

In fact, even Target found a way to utilize their predictive data in a less “creepy” way. They adjusted their methods such that potentially pregnant customers still got coupons, but they mixed in other coupons that these customers were unlikely to use to make it seem as though the baby coupons were just randomly included. And it worked!

Nonprofit can learn a lesson here: as long as you’re not abusing data from social media research and presenting it to donors in a “creepy” or intrusive way, you can navigate these treacherous waters.

To put it simply: you don’t mention that someone is having a baby until they’ve explicitly told you they are. You might take note to not offer them wine to drink or offer up your seat, but you don’t broach the topic head-on until they’re ready.

Treat your social media research in the same way.

A Person’s Expectation of Privacy

The other issue that really dictates how someone perceives their online self being snooped on is what their expectation of privacy is.

When someone is fully aware that their social media profile is public, they often have no problem with someone looking through it. In fact, it might be the very reason they decided to leave it public.

However, some people are unaware of their privacy settings or what can and can’t be seen publically on their Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn accounts.

As you can imagine, when you think something is private, then find out that it isn’t, it can leave one feeling a bit violated.

Handling these types of situations is largely dependant on the type of data or information gathered. Some information is rather innocuous, like a picture of someone with their family.

Other things might be slightly more embarrassing, like seeing that someone has “liked” some…*ahem* interesting photos.

This is when a researcher or fundraiser has to use their judgement and decide what might cross the line or what might creep someone out.

Take it from fundraiser Rory Green:

"Donors have the right to access their files from your donor database. So never put anything in your database that you wouldn't want the donor to read. If there are sensitive issues that need to be noted down, I may include a line that says: ‘For more information, speak to Rory Green or reference the shared staff drive’"

But sometimes, the problem with data isn’t the sensitivity of the donor, it’s the sensitivity of the researcher or fundraiser...

Sometimes Data Hurts YOU, Not the Donor

Something that doesn’t get talked about enough in this debate is the fact that many times, your social media research might just dig up information that is just plain useless to you.

LinkedIn for Nonprofits

It can be tempting to just include anything and everything you might find, but many times you’re just creating a bunch of noise by doing this. A skilled researcher knows how to filter out the signal, but all of us can be tempted by information that might be “juicy,” but not necessarily helpful.

Worse yet, you might stumble on data that while irrelevant, triggers some sort of bias in you.

Especially this time of year (election season). Finding out a donor supports something you vehemently disagree with can be tough to overcome, even if that issue is unrelated to your cause. Watch out for that bias!

Guidelines for Using Social Media Data

Ultimately, as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous it will be impossible to avoid it in donor research, and that’s just a fact even those who are uncomfortable with it will have to accept. At a certain point, you're hurting your cause by not utilizing social media in donor research.

So, is it ethical to use social media data in research?

I think the answer is a resounding yes, as long as you’re professional and courteous.

But there are some guidelines we should follow that will help avoid uncomfortable situations. In fact, the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) set out guidelines for social media research in their Statement of Ethics.

Better yet, they included a specific guide on using LinkedIn (check out the download at the bottom of the page on the above link).

Of note is the guidelines on identifying oneself during the research process. APRA’s stance on anonymous searching is that this is simply a privacy setting and not deception. However, if specifically asked during your research process, you should always be honest and forthcoming with who you are and the organization you are working for.

Here are some other guidelines to help keep you from stumbling:

  • Avoid letting your personal feelings and bias influence your perception of a donor.
  • Treat social media data, even if it’s public, with the same respect and dignity you do with financial data.
  • Always identify yourself and your organization if asked while researching.
  • Do not violate the terms of service of each individual social network.
  • Don’t dig for information that is unnecessary for your work.
  • Finally, as stated eloquently by APRA’s LinkedIn guide: “It’s about building relationships. Focus on your mission and the prospect and their positive relationship to your organization.”

Stick to these guidelines, and you should steer clear of making any faux pas that leave your donor feeling violated.

This section from the APRA LinkedIn guide sums it up well:

“Reviewing public records should not present an ethical issue. There is nothing illegal, immoral or distasteful in viewing material which has been set out for public consumption. But, just because something fails to pose an ethical dilemma does not necessarily mean that it is a good idea. An action can be ethical while still not representing a best practice. Ultimately, we all have different obligations to our respective organizations.”

LinkedIn for Nonprofits

Image credit: Flickr user Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA 2.0

Topics: social media, prospect research

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