Several years ago, a researcher I’ll call Chris spent a good two hours tracking down a retired donor’s email address. The request was from a fundraiser who really wanted to contact the donor to say thank you for an unexpected and generous gift.
It took a long while, but Chris finally found the email address through sheer doggedness and determination, and Chris was pretty proud.
Chris had gone to all of the usual places and practically knew the donor’s whole life story by the end of the two hours, but the email address remained elusive. Chris was just about to give up, but then got an idea while reading through the list of the donor’s many memberships.
The search then went like this: Chris checked out every one of the leisure organizations that the donor was very involved with. One of them had published a pdf newsletter on their website. In the newsletter the organization had included the email addresses of the officers of the club listed under their names. The donor was an officer!
The email address was copied down and duly passed along with some fanfare to the bemused/amused fundraiser, who had no idea that it had been such a rabbit-hole search.
It was one of those triumphant moments that we have as researchers: when you allow yourself a (real or internal) fist pump and a “YES!” for finding that hard-searched-for gem of information.
The next day, the fundraiser showed up at Chris’s desk and they were NOT happy.
“The donor wanted to know how we got that email address. It’s their personal email address and they’re sure that they didn’t give it to us because they use it only for family and friends.”
Chris went from the emotional height of the Matterhorn … to smattered and forlorn in less than 24 hours.
Somewhat abashed, Chris outlined the search strategy to the fundraiser. The fundraiser had a heart-to-heart with the donor who (thankfully) was understanding about the matter.
The story ended well, but things could have gone very differently.
Email addresses, phone numbers, and other ways of contacting people are some of the pieces of information that many of us might think nothing of, but these personal bits of data have the potential to feel “over the line” for some prospects.
ON THE OTHER HAND
Many organizations are required by law to keep addresses up to date in the donor database, and in order to do that will normally use National Change of Address (NCOA) services. Those services frequently provide new information that our constituents didn’t share.
Every organization operates differently with regards to data entry, but if you don’t already have a policy in place it’s important to have a discussion and then set a procedure for how you handle contact information that a donor didn’t share with you. Will you red-flag it? Add a comment to the record? Not enter it?*
There are a lot of laws, rules, and guidelines that cover confidentiality, data security, and ethics in our business, and simple common sense is also a good guide.
We researchers are a curious lot, and we like to get to the bottom of things. We like the rush of triumph in finding the obscure.
But too-diligent research can also potentially harm a relationship if we’re not mindful of the framework in which it’ll be kept and used. Use common sense and sensitivity when searching for that hard-to-find piece of information. Push back when you’re asked for something that feels sensitive; the requester just may not have thought about the implications.
Because you should always be prepared to answer the question “How did you get this contact information for me?”