Proceed With Caution

July 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

Prospect research, social media, and ethics #APRA2011

The 2011 APRA International Conference is underway, and alas, I cannot be there. I am observing the twitter feed from my perch in Chicago, however, and seeing that there is some really great conversation going on. I wish I were there!

One of the interesting conversations is about (what else) social media! Folks are debating the ethics of using social media as a source for prospect research content. I’m gathering from some of the tweets coming from Austin that people think the information shared through those channels is fair game. Jeanine Flores tweeted the question: Is it still too soon to use social media and analytics? My response is no, it’s not too soon, but I do think that researchers always need to be discerning about the source.

My rule of thumb when gathering information about prospective donors goes to the following question: Would the prospect be happy to see the information in their profile if they were to have access to it? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t use the information. Some may argue that if the social media is in the public realm, open and available for anyone to see, it’s okay to use it to build solicitation strategy. While the information may be out in the open, it is important to consider the intended audience. If a blog is out there to share with family and friends, even if it is open for anyone to see, gathering any information from that source can pose a risk to the relationship between that prospect and the organization.

To illustrate my opinion, I will say that any information that someone posts on LinkedIn is fair game. This is a professional networking site, and the intention of using this tool is to expand your professional network. Presumably, the end users want their information to be discovered here. Facebook, on the other hand, is more personal in nature. Also, I don’t assume that people have a clear understanding of the privacy settings on Facebook. While I would not say that everything shared there is off limits (if you do indeed have access to it), be mindful and discerning. For myself, I will simply not look for or use any prospect information from Facebook.

In addition to this debate, I saw a few tweets referring to the need for every organization to establish a social media policy which includes something about prospect research and ethics, or that the confidentiality and ethics statement for the prospect research team includes something about the use of social media.

The bottom line on social media as an information resource: be discerning, proceed with caution, and when in doubt, don’t use it.

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§ 3 Responses to Proceed With Caution

  • Beth Bandy says:

    Thank you for this post! Like you, I’ve been watching the APRA conference from afar on Twitter and read the social media tweets with interest today. While I am not opposed to using social media for research (and was just about to tweet a social media question when I saw your tweet about this post), I do think that your point about being mindful of what a prospect would want to see in his or her profile is important. After all, the fundamental purpose of research is to help an institution find, connect, and build positive relationships with donors. If your research undermines that purpose, then something is broken. Part of the reason this topic is so interesting to me is that the norms around what people think of a “private” or “public” online are changing rapidly. To me, the ability to stay on top of current thought in this area and do an ethics check on a regular basis is very important.

  • Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking post about prospect research and social media. I have been thinking a great deal about the role that social media can play in prospect research. I believe that it can be a powerful tool to help your organization discover who has an affinity for your organization and why. However, I absolutely agree with your comment about the need to proceed with caution when using social media as a resource for prospect research.

  • Sarah says:

    Thank you for the comments, Meredith and Beth! I appreciate the feedback.

    Meredith, I agree that social media can be valuable in identifying affinity, and that is one of the more challenging data points to discover. It is also the one that everyone wants! Acquiring it through social media is a great temptation.

    Beth, I couldn’t agree on your point about the danger of undermining the relationship by collecting sensitive information.

    For both of these points, I think it is of critical importance for every organization to have a written statement of ethics and confidentiality pertaining to information management, and a process for ensuring that all staff and volunteers who have access to the information understands what their responsibilities are.

    On another point, I really love social media tools for the purpose of connecting with other fundraising professionals like the two of you! It is really wonderful to be able to share ideas and resources this way, as well as to connect with some really great people.

    Thanks again, ladies!

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