Is It Ethical to Gather Social Data for Prospect Research?

As a past president of APRA Wisconsin and an impassioned advocate for prospect research, I try my best to keep up with ethics standards in our industry. In our search for strategic and actionable data, we aim to keep matters as black-and-white as possible, but that gray area always has a way of creeping in and muddying things.

That’s why one of the sessions I most looked forward to at Prospect Development 2014 (the annual APRA conference) was the session on ethics.

Not only was this session led by three people I know, like, and deeply respect—Lori Hood Lawson, Liz Rejman, and Marianne Pelletier—but it also would help me gain important insights to help me address any gray-area ethical questions I may encounter in my nonprofit consulting business.

Living and working in a midsize city, I thought my biggest ethical worry would involve a client requesting research on a person I’d already researched for a different, earlier client. How would I charge for a duplicate search? How would I shut off the existing knowledge I’d inevitably have? (Luckily, that has yet to happen.)

What I have encountered, though, are those ethical issues which occur at the intersection of prospect research and the world of social media. And the session brought to light many ethical questions that arise in the nonprofit sector relating to that tricky intersection.

In my last EverTrue post, I wrote about how building a community on social media could inform prospect research for nonprofits that have an inborn constituency and especially for those that do not. But I only hinted at the ethics of conducting prospect research in social media by linking to the APRA Social Media Ethics Statement. After attending the ethics session at the conference, it struck me that I should have explained more.

APRA’s Social Media Ethics Statement

The APRA Social Media Ethics Statement is a four-legged stool consisting of integrity, accountability, practice, and conduct. These four ethical pillars address how APRA members should behave when putting information out through social media and when gathering information from social media:

Integrity means being transparent about our own identities and the identities of the organizations we represent on social media, being respectful of copyright and intellectual property, and being sensitive to other points of view and to the effect the content we promote may have on others. We can’t create dummy or anonymous accounts in order to enter social media and establish relationships with donors and prospects. We must be honest, open, and fair in our behavior and broadcasts.

To be truly accountable, we must extend the extreme care we take with donor privacy and confidentiality to what we find on social media. And while we must respect the privacy of our donors and prospects, we must also respect the confidentiality of information we know internally at our organizations. Just as we are mindful about gathering confidential data, we must also be mindful about broadcasting it.

Practice governs how we use the information we find: the care we take to verify what we find not only in terms of factuality but also in terms of determining its necessity and appropriateness to our fundraising efforts. It speaks to the boundaries we must establish and respect between what is private and what is public and between what is interesting and what is actionable. The easiest way to manage this is to remember that public information is the realm of properly-conducted prospect research; it’s the information we find when we are not logged in to LinkedIn or Facebook (not logged in to our personal profiles or fictitious ones).

Finally, conduct. Here the rubber hits the road. The APRA Social Media Ethics Statement specifically states that APRA members “… should not ‘friend’ or be ‘friended’ or enter into personal relations with prospects or donors in the conduct of their work [emphasis mine].” I added emphasis to the last clause to reinforce that the ethics statement isn’t mandating that the researcher who is hired by his alma mater must cut himself off from all his college friends or that the researcher who comes to an international NGO from the corporate world must sever all her professional connections. It does not mean that I can’t gather the names of my organization’s Facebook likers or LinkedIn connections. What it does mean is that to accomplish my work as a researcher, I cannot personally friend prospects on Facebook or connect to donors on LinkedIn (or anywhere else in the ever-evolving social media landscape) simply and solely in order to research them.

As an APRA member, my interactions in social media must comply with these ethical guidelines; as a responsible and ethical prospect researcher, these principles must be fully integrated into my social media brand and behavior. Indeed, since many of us who are prospect researchers are also prospects and donors, we should be glad our industry has established these boundaries.

Sarah Bernstein is an independent consultant in Milwaukee, WI, supporting nonprofit organizations with prospect research and database analysis. She earlier worked in both the social service and higher education sectors. Sarah is an active member of APRA International and past president of the APRA Wisconsin Chapter. She blogs at The Fundraising Back-Office and can also be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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