Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Walking a Mile in the Donor's Shoes

I took a course on public administration ethics last semester as part of my MPA (Master of Public Administration) program at NC State. One of our assignments was to critique the code of ethics for an organization, and I chose to critique APRA’s code.

Since starting in the prospect research/fundraising field three years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the ethics associated with fundraising in general and prospect research specifically. Obviously we are bound by practicality; there is some information we just can’t reach. But we also have more “wishy-washy” ethical dilemmas: Just because we have access to a piece of information, should we report it? The explosion of social media further complicates this question; for example if someone has his or her Facebook page public, can we use information from that page in our reports?

For those who haven’t looked at it recently, APRA’s Statement of Ethics can be found at It is pretty simple when compared to some of the other codes I looked at in my class; the code of ethics for the International City/County Management Association, for example, has 12 tenets and a five-page document expanding on them with guidelines. I personally like the APRA Code’s simplicity; you can, after all, micro-manage someone’s behavior, and I’ve always felt that being too specific when setting ethical standards can increase the likelihood of leaving something out. Better, I think, to provide broader guidelines and help professionals understand that ethical behavior often includes making judgment calls that can’t be predicted.

This notion is especially relevant in fundraising and prospect research. Even the most specific statement in APRA’s code (“Members…shall only record data that is appropriate to the fundraising process”) is arguably too broad; after all, what data is appropriate, and what data isn’t?

In my paper, I argued that this lack of specificity is necessary in prospect research. Part of the “art and science” of what we do is that our research process does not look the same for each prospect. The data we record in our reports just prior to an ask may not be appropriate to include in our reports at the identification stage of the fundraising cycle. These types of decisions are what make us data analysts rather than data reporters. APRA cannot dictate what type of data is appropriate at each stage of the fundraising cycle and for each prospect because each prospect is different.

Interestingly, since I turned in my paper, APRA has posted a Social Media Ethics Statement on its website. This statement is more specific than its broader ethics statement, perhaps because social media is still relatively new, and everyone – not just prospect researchers – are still trying to figure out its implications. The statement provides some specific behaviors to avoid. For example, APRA members “should not ‘friend’ or be ‘friended’ or enter into personal relations with prospects or donors in the conduct of their work.” It is ethical, therefore, to use LinkedIn to find information about prospects, but it would be unethical to “connect” to a prospect for the sole purpose of seeing information that is private.

These new frontiers are not only exciting in their implications for what information we find and how we use it to raise funds for our institutions; they are also interesting from an ethical perspective. What types of information are appropriate to use for fundraising purposes, and what standards have we adopted in our use of that information? As social media becomes more and more of a presence in our personal and professional lives, what impact does that presence have on us, personally and professionally? One helpful guideline I like to use is: In a grand alternate universe where I am a wealthy philanthropist, if a prospect research analyst at my alma mater were doing X, would I find it intrusive? Or would I find it to be a normal part of fundraising?

It’s a cliché for a reason: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can be very helpful. And in a profession that is all about raising funds to promote the public good, having that kind of empathy is a good idea anyway.

This post was written by Taryn Oesch, Prospect Research Analyst at North Carolina State University.


  1. Great article! I think the first question you ask is a great one - just because we are able to find a piece of information. does that mean we should report it? If the donor's son's best friend posted personal information about the donor's family for all the world to see, does that make the information free game? Definitely something to think about.

  2. I agree with Sarah, great job Taryn! I like the point you make about the decisions that make us "data analysts rather than data reporters". We may use the same brush to paint the canvas, but each color may bring an entirely new perspective...