I originally wrote this post in June 2015. It was titled, “Isn’t that a bit distasteful?” Fast forward 19 months, and I am reposting it as my contribution to the current crisis within the sector around the use/abuse of data.

Back in 2015 I asked someone who was leading a charity whether they had wealth screened their database. They responded with discomfort and said, “Isn’t it rather distasteful to find out how rich someone is?” Their view was that we should treat everyone in the same way, and those who are richer will automatically give more. I couldn’t have disagreed more strongly. Today their response might be, “Isn’t it all a bit illegal?”

I would still have to disagree.

Let’s cover off the point around illegality first. The act of wealth screening in of itself is not illegal. What is illegal is to undertake it without the consent of those whose data you hold. Of course, individuals have a right to know how we process their data, and we should make this explicit in our privacy policy and allow our supporters to consent to us going so. For more detail on this topic see my colleague Christian Propper’s recent post.

So, assuming you have the appropriate privacy policy in place and the consent of your supporters, let’s explore the case for screening…

We spend years recruiting supporters, volunteers, and donors. We keep their records on our databases, and we use that data in more or less sophisticated ways depending on the resources and skills we have in our organisations.

Whatever form our data is in, it represents a bank of time, energy, investment, and commitment from our side and from those whose names we keep. It may be a ‘mass’ of data, but each record represents a personal relationship with our cause.

It still surprises me that a charity I worked for and gave to for years and persuaded by friends and family to support never realised the depth of my loyalty to them and the complexity of my relationship with them.  When I finally stopped giving to them (due to the two-dimensional transactional nature of their communications,) they never really contacted me in a personal way to explore why – I was not an individual supporter, rather a name on a list, part of normal donor attrition. I would have been a lifelong donor and a legacy pledger had they simply kept great records on my relationship with them and tailored their approaches to me.

We owe it to ourselves, our donors, our volunteers and our beneficiaries to use our data in really smart ways. To be highly efficient, effective, personal and responsive in our fundraising. This is what is expected of us.

The people whose names inhabit our databases – people like us – are used to being communicated with in very sophisticated, tailored ways. When we go online, the ad that appears is for a retailer they bought from last week. When we visit a web site, the content is tailored to the clicks we made just yesterday. Our supermarket sends us vouchers for things we regularly buy or might want to buy based on what they know about us.  We can even tailor our news feed to give us the news we want and are interested in.

Our world is becoming increasingly a highly bespoke world, and this makes us increasingly intolerant of ‘cold calls’ and ‘blanket mailings’. When it comes to charities approaching us in these ways, some of us are becoming infuriated and some parts of the media are stoking this fury. The answer to responding to this discontent is not in not holding the data, but in seeking consent to use it in smart ways that will make our donors experience better, much better.

I am sure all fundraisers would agree that we should use our data to tailor our approaches so that most closely match the interests and wishes of our supporters. Surely, we should similarly design asks that also match their ability to give.

When we wealth screen our databases, we are simply accessing publicly held information on an individual’s wealth, roles, and interests. Isn’t it only responsible and thoughtful to know if one of our supporters has given a big donation to a similar cause?  Or to be aware they are a trustee of a grant making trust you are applying to?

Wouldn’t a very wealthy supporter prefer that you approached them personally for a meaningful and impactful major gift, rather than send them a letter asking for £50 or £100 a few times a year?

If we want to build long-term, meaningful (and consensual!) relationships with our supporters and explain to them why we’re doing so, then knowledge of their philanthropic interests and ability to give is vital. It is not distasteful; it is professional, thoughtful, and responsive. In fact, isn’t it distasteful for a charity to be inefficient and not use the resources at their disposal to maximise their impact?  Isn’t the frustration we hear about based on mass mailings and ‘cold’ approaches not highly tailored, well researched approaches thoughtfully made to an individual rather than a name on a list?  Do not let data protection law and media focus stop you from being smart and efficient in your fundraising – seize the day, and let it drive a smart consensual relationship.

Now is the time to invest in research, data quality and donor care – be sure you know those whose names inhabit your database better than you have ever known them before, and be sure that you have their consent for you to carefully steward their data and build your relationship with them.  

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