Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Ethics of Your List

Is it ethical to pay to acquire personal and/or mailing information (data mining) for potential donors? What what conditions should an organization pay or not pay to acquire such information?

I subscribe to a magazine that has a disclaimer saying “from time to time we will share your address with like-minded organizations” or something of the sort. Other places will say that they will never share your information with third parties.  I’m at the leading edge of the generation that grew up with computers in the house -- though we didn’t have the internet in my house until I was in high school. I think that our generation is accepting of the idea that we are being tracked. This is most likely online, where cookies attach to your browser and then the ads follow you around, trying to sell you something you were browsing for earlier in the week. We are such that when Snowden came forward with information about the government tracking us, for a large part there was a sigh of “so, what?”, because  tracking is just part of the system.

Thinking on this question, my first reaction was “Why wouldn’t it be ethical?”. After all, virtually no large-scale, sophisticated direct mail program is possible without the use of rented lists”. Given the number involved, between a 1-2% success rate, you need a lot of addresses, and I don’t know how you would go about getting those unless you had access to a third party. The fact that these third parties have information about your potential donors that goes deeper than their address is a huge strength for making your potential solicitation more successful. If I’m trying to raise money for aid to landmine victims in east asia, I’m going to strike all the people from my list who work at Acme Landmine Company.
It’s hard for me to see where it would be unethical. A piece of mail isn’t intrusive. If it doesn’t interest me I’ll throw it away. The only thing I could see is if your list assumes something about a person that might be embarrassing or damaging to the person receiving it. There was the much talked about incident where Target was able to identify pregnant women through their buying patterns, and they sent coupons to a teenage girl - outing her pregnancy to her family when they called to complain to the company. I just don’t see most nonprofits being at that level, so there seem very few ethical barriers to me.