12 Dec Privacy Policies
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
From my In-Box not too long ago…
Land Trust Alliance hired me to write the Guidance Documents for the revised Standard 5 on Fundraising, and it included a section on Privacy. Of the sections in the Standard, this was the most difficult for me to write – because, for most of my career, I have not actually practiced the provisions I wrote about for LTA.
To prepare for the assignment, I did a fair amount of research on privacy issues and policies, I looked at AFP, Network for Good, several Linked-In forums, and the blogosphere generally. The overall conclusions are as follows:
- Every Land Trust should have a policy that addresses issues of what donor and gift information is collected, how it is used, and how a donor might go about getting their information removed from such uses.
- The policy should be easily found on the organization’s website and written in such a way as to be easily understood by anyone.
- Each communication piece coming from the organization should include an option for having one’s name removed from the list.
- The land trust should have the ability to honor both general and specific requests from its donors in this regard.
- Most of this is driven by electronic marketing norms where one can easily “unsubscribe” from future marketing email.
I started my fundraising career before e-marketing was much of an issue. We grew our membership by trading lists with other like-minded organizations and then mailing invitations to join to the members on their lists. And they would mail to ours in return. If someone – anyone – requested that their name not be used for such marketing, we put them on a NOTRADE list and removed (purged) them from any list we traded. We also kept a DONOTMAIL list and were careful to purge that list against any traded lists we might get from other organizations. All of our major gift donors were on that list! These norms weren’t policy-driven, but they were ethics-driven.
The internet and the advent of e-marketing have changed the rules a lot, and there are different expectations now. One big change is the call for regular disclosure in all media. Instead of simply being responsive to donor requests to be removed from various lists, non-profits are now responsible for regularly asking donors if they wish to be removed.
If it sounds like I’m whining, it’s because I am. I don’t have a problem with the expectation that e-marketing messages carry an “unsubscribe” message near the bottom of the message, because I get SO MANY email marketing messages – many of them daily from the same company or group. But do the same rules need to apply to newsletters? The Fall Appeal? Invitations to field trips?
I get calls every year from land trusts that feel stuck with their current donor base. Most of them have 300-500 member/donors and haven’t grown for several years. They aren’t growing because the number of members leaving due to attrition is equal to the number of new members recruited from tabling and events. These efforts are not scalable beyond a certain point. The efforts aren’t scalable because the organizations aren’t in the mail – trading lists with like-minded organizations.
In fact, many land trusts have elected to simply tell everyone that they will never trade with or sell their membership information to anyone. Some of them purchase names from other like-minded organizations so they can mail invitations to join. It feels ironic to me that an organization using the fact that it does not make its list available to other like-minded organizations has no problem buying someone else’s. Most often, such lists are more expensive. I recently worked on a project for a client who paid an extra $400 for the lists they mailed to because they did not make theirs available for sale.
Regardless, I thought I’d share the draft guidance language with you here. I would be interested in your thoughts and feedback.
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When donors give money or tangible property to nonprofit organizations, quite a bit of data comes with it: name, address, and other contact information, for example – but also gift amount, time of year, project or program interest, and so on. This information is valuable in that it helps the nonprofit build and track its relationships with donors. It also has great potential value to other organizations and even commercial interests.
Privacy Policies first establish that all donor information collected belongs to the land trust and not to any associated staff, consultants, or volunteers. They acknowledge that donors have the right to limit how their private information is used and that the land trust is responsible for maintaining systems that honor that right. This includes an expectation that reasonable precautions will be taken against cyber attacks.
Privacy Policies should cover (at least) how the land trust intends to handle:
- Listing of gifts and donors on the internet, in newsletters and annual reports, and in any other public settings;
- Internal use of information to mail newsletters, event invitations, special appeals, renewals, and other solicitations;
- Internal use of information to emailing news and information including solicitations;
- Sharing of list information with other organizations under any circumstances;
- Any other use or publication of information collected online or through the mail about the donor and their giving information.
Donor requests to have their name and gift information held anonymously must be absolutely honored, except where disclosure is required by law. (Disclosure of gifts and donors are required on the IRS Form 990 under certain circumstances. Land trusts are advised to seek advice from a qualified CPA.)
Holding donor information anonymously requires that the land trust’s data systems, including human systems, are capable of honoring such requests. Understanding the systems and regularly testing them is a good organizational practice.
Donors sometimes request that their contributions be held confidentially even from the Board. Because the Board ultimately bears fiduciary responsibility for the organization, this is one request that cannot be guaranteed. If a board member were to become alarmed about the identity of a donor or the nature of a gift, they would have the right to have that information disclosed to them, subject to the confidentiality statement they sign every year.
It is worth noting that anonymity is not necessarily helpful for fundraising. Donors often influence each other, and the fact that a donor is listed in the Annual Report has the potential to lend other donors confidence in measuring their own decisions. Similarly, listing confidential gifts in the Annual Report as “Anonymous” is not necessary, and has the potential for fostering suspicion.
Internal and External Mailing Lists
Land trusts should maintain and honor donor requests to be removed from any and all internal mailing and email lists and should have the systems and practices in place to guarantee this removal. This implies that donors can easily find a mechanism for communicating their wishes to the land trust. When the information is being delivered by email, most people have gotten used to searching for an “unsubscribe” link near the bottom of the page. But most privacy experts recommend that organizations make it equally easy for a donor to “unsubscribe” from everything else as well.
This means that everything a donor receives from a land trust should include an easy way, such as a simple check-box or online procedure, for the donor to indicate that they wish to have their name removed from similar outreach in the future. This applies to newsletters, event invitations, special appeal solicitations, email, eNews, and all other paper and electronic communications.
Sharing and/or trading lists with other nonprofit organizations is and has historically been an important driver for growth, and especially for conservation organizations. However, if a land trust allows its donor names to be used by other organizations (name-for-name trades, for example), it should disclose that information to its donors at least once each year and have an easy-to-use mechanism for donors to opt out. It should also maintain and regularly test systems for suppressing such a NOTRADE list.
Nonprofits are discouraged generally from offering their mailing lists for commercial uses. Such agreements are potentially subject to Unrelated Business Income Taxes (UBIT), and land trusts are strongly advised to seek legal counsel before allowing such use.
Again, all thoughts, feedback, and comments are welcomed.
PS: Special note to H – Thank you for the topic suggestion!
Photo by DaiMinh courtesy of Stocksnap.io.