Ethical Relationships: Donors ARE Data—The Ethical Implications of Data Hygiene
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.
—Excerpt from the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh
In folklore, mythology, and fantasy literature, the concept of the “true name” is a relatively common motif: knowing someone’s true name gives you power and control over them. Think of Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale. Or Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, who only begins to recover some level of humanity—or Hobbitness, perhaps—when his true name, Smeagol, is revealed. In child development, a significant milestone is the infant’s recognition of their own name and the concept of self that follows. That name has meaning, and it signifies me, my, mine—separate from you or yours.
Perhaps Dale Carnegie said it best, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
Much has already been written about the ethical responsibility to data privacy, particularly Gene Scanlan’s recent article, “Publicly Private: The Ethics of Donor and Prospect Information,” in the July 2019 issue of Advancing Philanthropy. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook privacy concerns have forever changed the way we think about data privacy and protection. The ethical implications for fundraising are clear in AFP’s Code of Ethical Standards, that members shall “comply with all applicable local, state, provincial and federal civil and criminal laws.”
Addressing a donor using their correct name in the way they provided it has a direct impact on their continued and future giving.
The CAN-SPAM act in the U.S. and Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL), along with individual state/province registration and disclosure requirements, are all legal obligations that nonprofits and fundraisers must follow. We are ethically bound to adhere to this legislation.
But what about the ethics of data quality and hygiene? Do we have an ethical responsibility to donors to know and use the data they provide correctly? In essence, to know their true names?
Hello, My Name Is…
My full name is Thomas Clay Buck. I have no problem sharing this publicly; it’s a matter of fact and relatively easy to find. But I have never used my first name. Neither of my parents used their first names—it’s a bit of a family tradition going back generations. I began using the first initial formally to help avoid confusion.
Despite my best attempts, I consistently and inevitably receive solicitations addressed to “Dear Thomas” or, with alarming frequency, “Dear Tom.” This is a surefire way to alert me to the fact the sender doesn’t know me.
There are countless examples of donors who identify as female and who are the primary gift giver in the household, but are listed secondarily to their male spouse or partners. Her name appears as the sole donor on payment records, yet she’s still listed in the donor file as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and correspondence is directed to the husband—the presumed head of household.
In an increasingly multicultural world, names of donors may be spelled with combinations of letters that are foreign to our native tongues. Not to mention how many will contain an accent over a particular letter, a construct relatively common in many cultures. If we are to truly embrace diversity and inclusion, the correct spelling, including the appropriate accents, must be a part of that focus.
There’s no question that errors in data limit our ability to reach our donors and connect with them in the way they prefer. But is there also an ethical responsibility regarding data hygiene? Does maintaining quality data rise above the world of best practices and “the right thing to do,” or do we have an ethical mandate for responsible data management?
The errors that can happen in a database are myriad. Issues with names are just one example. Street address errors or omissions, not capturing phone or email (and getting the appropriate opt-in!), not having any addresses—all contribute to data constructs that limit our ability to contact donors, solicit them, and steward them appropriately.
Take the Necessary Steps
Data quality will always be a problem. There is simply no way to ensure that every record in the database is 100% accurate, 100% of the time. Some studies estimate the unusable/unreachable amount of data is, on average, 5–7% of total records. Others estimate it as high as 15%. But there are steps that can be taken to keep it as accurate as possible: ensuring accuracy in data entry, regular NCOA (National Change Of Address) and demographic updates, confirming information directly with donors, and creating a culture of donor-centeredness all go a long way toward fulfilling our responsibilities.
Beyond the ethical implications, being able to get our fundraising messages—our stories—to the right people, through the right communications channel, at the right time, is what drives fundraising.
It is when we neglect data that it becomes problematic and raises ethical concerns. If data is not maintained through regular cleaning and maintenance, and if acceptable protocols are not followed in data and gift entry, we are, in essence, preventing donors from giving. And, in a fundamental way we are disrespecting our donors. So much for the much-touted “donor centricity.”
If we accept as valid the findings of GivingUSA and the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, then we know that donor renewal rates are less than 50% and the number of low- and mid-level donors is declining.
And if we also accept as valid that it is far more costly—at any level—to acquire a donor than it is to renew one, donor retention rightly becomes a primary focus for the sector as a whole.
Get It Right
We also know from our colleagues in sister professions—marketing, sales, and customer experience—that personalization plays a huge role in driving brand loyalty. Getting a donor’s name right and using it correctly has a significant impact on whether or not that donor renews. Regardless of how much they care for the cause, if our data errors show them we do not care enough about them to get their name right, we have minimized their investment in our missions.
Addressing a donor using their correct name in the way they provided it has a direct impact on their continued and future giving. Any action a fundraiser or nonprofit organization takes that limits or inhibits a donor’s ability to give—even if that action is an indirect one—violates the trust the donor has placed in us. By not taking good care of donor contact information—their name, address, phone number, email, or any other information they provide—and rendering their record either unusable or incorrect, we have, essentially, interfered with their ability to do good through their giving. We have, from a deontological perspective, violated our duty to the donor.
By ignoring data quality standards, or at least by not prioritizing them, we also violate our duty to our organizations. As fundraisers, we carry a responsibility to our donors, our organizations, and the beneficiaries our missions serve. Our commitment to our employers carries an implicit mandate to raise the money that fuels those missions. Any action we take that inhibits or restricts that directive also becomes an ethical concern.
Beyond the ethical implications, being able to get our fundraising messages—our stories—to the right people, through the right communications channel, at the right time, is what drives fundraising. Donors ARE data. If we can’t get our stories to them because we have their contact information incorrect or we have neglected to steward their trust in us by giving us their “true name,” we limit ourselves and our potential. And we limit the impact our missions can have.
Brené Brown—whose name, with that delightful accent aigu over the final e, is probably misspelled on a regular basis—has said, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” The soul of our donors is in the data; we’d do well to listen to the stories they tell. How else can we open the “door of compassion”?
T. Clay Buck, MFA, CFRE, AFP Master Trainer, is the chief development officer for Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation. He is the immediate past president of AFP Las Vegas and teaches the fundraising courses for the Nonprofit Management and Fundraising Certificate programs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.