top of page

#64 Is donor profiling testing ethical boundaries?

This week, The Telegraph published its bi-annual anti-charity fundraising article, this time taking aim at the practice of charities desiring better quality donors and rewarding fundraisers for recruiting them.

At first glance it appears to be an odd target for the press but at second glance, no, at second glance it still appears to be an absurd angle to base a story on. Why would a charity spend money on unreliable high-risk donors?

The profound lack of curiosity displayed by the journalist for the workings of not for profits bemuses me again. Is it the fact that the media feel the need to warn middle-aged people to steer clear of fundraisers (or as the article calls us, ch****rs) in case they decide to financially support Australian causes or does the newspaper hold a deep belief that charities must waste money on their fundraising efforts?

With all this anger flying around my mind I totally missed the core question. Is it unethical, and therefore in the public interest, to target a donor using profiling?

There is precedent in our industry. Our brothers and sisters in telemarketing will segment and prioritise lists of donors and leads to get the best results. They may not pay their fundraisers more for recruiting the prime candidates, but they make sure to call those identified as the best prospects at the peak times.

Our cousins in direct marketing have been targeting based on postcode, presumed wealth and age for decades. Our nephews and nieces in digital place ads based on the behaviours of their required audience, as do those working in TV and press. Specific time slots on certain channels and publications target the sought-after potential donors. And forget about our aunts and uncles in bequests/planned giving/legacy, they won’t even talk to you until you’re 55 years old.

Furthermore, this is not unique to the not for profit sector. Corporates have been using these tactics for a hundred years for the same reason as charities – they have limited funds.

If your marketing budget is limitless you can afford to advertise and procure in every market all the time, but very few organisations, whether they are for or not for profits, have pockets that deep.

A limited budget is not a defence against accusations of unethical behaviour, it is merely an economic reality. The question still stands, even though most organisations do it, is it ethical to target high-quality donors?

There are a few points to discuss:

  • Firstly, when targeting the ‘best’ donors, are we using the correct metrics?

  • Secondly, are the profiles based on dangerous data sets?

  • Thirdly, are we preventing those who do not subscribe to the profile to give to their favourite cause?

Starting at the top, is age a strong enough measure of the likelihood that the donor will give long-term? Some say no and argue that the donor commitment score given in a survey will be a better measure. I put to you that a financially poor person may wish to be committed to the cause but will struggle to donate a long-term monthly gift.

Equally, wealth is not a measure as a wealthy person who lacks the commitment will cancel their pledge. So, do we need to check if they are wealthy and committed? It is most definitely unethical to ask a potential donor to declare their income before we agree to sign them up, so how do we determine who will be our best donors?

Secondly, the question of the danger of the data set. Are we creating profiles based on gender, sexual preference, religious affiliation, nationality or ethnic background and is it wrong to do so?

A women’s rights cause may be tempted to approach more women for donations than men. Is that unethical? An African culture festival might want to seek donations from those Aussies of African descent. Is that wrong? These are questions that have not been answered by the fundraising sector or the public and as a male, straight, atheist, Caucasian I am certainly not the right person to make that call.

Thirdly, are we preventing those who do not subscribe to the profile to give to their favourite cause? I think this is a no-brainer. If it is legal to accept a donation from those not included in the prescribed list we should, and do, accept their generous gift, we just don’t necessarily pay the fundraiser for it. An obvious caveat to this would be that the charity is under no obligation to accept funds from those whose morality differs from that of the charity. A rather crude example of this could be a registered paedophile trying to make a donation to a children’s charity, but this would probably not form part of a charities profile logic.

In conclusion, donor profiling is a common practice in fundraising and marketing. It is an economically efficient way to appeal to as many people as possible who are likely to become donors or customers without breaking the bank. Done well, it gives those who care about your cause and have the means to support you an opportunity to give.

If you are willing to use profiling to recruit new donors you, as an organisation, need to be sure of your metrics, be able to defend your decisions, and not block others who still wish to give but do not comply with your profile to donate.

My final thought is that I really hope that the media will leave law-abiding charities alone, stop trying to knock down charity fundraisers, and stop calling us ch****rs. We are proud charity fundraisers and we will continue to work tirelessly to make a positive difference in the world.

PS: one of the charities in the article are a client of mine and I can say first hand that they are the single most ethical, passionate and honest team I have had the pleasure of working with. They do not deserve the negative slurs and are, in my opinion, owed an apology by the Telegraph.

bottom of page