I can’t stop talking about Big Data when I speak at conferences. I’m excited about the applications Big Data have for fundraising, and I’m not the only one – other prospect researchers, consultants and front-line fundraisers are talking about how Big Data analytics can transform prospect identification and donor engagement (amongst many other things).
For those of you who are new to the term, here’s what Big Data is: super large data sources, much bigger than the information in your Raiser’s Edge or DonorPerfect database. It’s huge data aggregators like the Securities and Exchange Commission or the US Census Bureau. Like Guidestar and Wikipedia. There are even clearinghouses that offer free, direct access to big data sources including websites like freebase, LittleSis and even Amazon (because, seriously – what can’t you get on Amazon these days? It’s not just for books anymore!).
With the recent revelations about the US government’s Big Brother-like access to information through the NSA Prism program, do you worry that the actions of us data nerds in nonprofits could make donors nervous that we’re doing something we shouldn’t be? That question lead me to an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Peter Manzo called “Can Charity Make Big Brother Benevolent?”
Manzo talks about ways that nonprofits/NGOs are using Big Data to effectively deliver essential services to their end users. He shares his vision of opportunities for transforming society that could be possible: for example, based on its use of Big Data, a food pantry or social service agency could proactively offer their services to a needy family in the community who didn’t realize they were eligible for support.
Which could be a wonderful thing.
Or it could signal a step closer to Dystopia. How much individually-identifiable information do we want out there about each of us? For example, in a recent Forbes article, writer Kashmir Hill described the fallout when Target knew that a teen was pregnant before she told her family. The teen’s father was livid (with Target) when she started receiving what he thought were inappropriate coupons. Soon he discovered that Target knew more about his daughter than he did. Target’s data-mining predictors are clearly sophisticated and surprisingly accurate, but as the company’s statistician commented, “…even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”
Yes, indeed. Both the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) have ethical codes that we in the profession are obliged to abide by. But are they good enough? Do they cover this new era of technological possibilities? And even when we follow the law, will what we do make our donors queasy?
Technology and our ability to manipulate data are advancing so quickly that we have to be confident that our own eagerness and experimentation with what is possible are aligned with our professional compass of what is ethical. Because if not, we’re going to hear about it in the most public of ways and, much worse, it will damage donor trust for a generation.
Is ethics a keystone in the conversations you hear about Big Data and fundraising analytics at the water cooler or at conferences? As enthusiastic as I am about Big Data, I know that we we’ll be nowhere with it if ethics is left out of it.