Prospecting · Ethics · Ask the Ethicist
Ask the Ethicist: Managing the Delicate Nature of Divorce in Prospect Research
Greetings Apra Ethics Team:
I researched a prospect who reported their recent divorce to us. I used public property ownership records to assign a percentage of ownership with regard to a jointly-owned home. I have been presented with additional, publicly available information that details the property division in the divorce settlement, which is different from what I reported. Although ascertaining property ownership falls under "information appropriate for fundraising activities," my feeling is that using the divorce record to do this is stepping over the line of respecting the constituent's privacy in this case. (Per the Apra Principles of Ethics and Compliance: “Respect constituents' privacy and maintain the confidentiality of constituent information. Record and disclose only information appropriate for fundraising activities.”)
I'd greatly appreciate hearing any thoughts you may have, or receiving any additional documentation that may be relevant.
Dear Treading Lightly,
Thank you for this important question! It’s always prudent to consider how we as fundraising professionals are utilizing sensitive information, even when it falls under public domain.
If the prospect has reported their divorce to a representative from your office, the information is yours to use within your job functions as you see fit. Although divorce can be a delicate subject, documenting the information in your secure database will not negatively impact the prospect. It’s important to alert any gift officer who is managing or in active communication with the prospect about the change in marital status. The prospect’s salutations and relationship type should also be updated so that mailings or solicitations won’t be directed to them as “Spouse and Spouse.”
If divorce records are public in your area, it’s fine to check them to confirm the separation; the marital status verification process is a standard part of prospect research and a significant component of determining an outreach strategy. If a divorce is acrimonious, there is no need to include specific details in a prospect profile. Our best practice recommendation is to use only such language as will guide a gift officer to appropriate action regarding engagement and solicitation. With high profile prospects, divorce filings may be reported by press and media outlets, and these documents may be helpful to share with a gift officer to shed light on any complexities.
We also need to consider the impact that a change in marital status, particularly divorce, can have on a capacity rating. In cases where real estate is an individual’s primary wealth asset, chronicling any alterations is especially important for the sake of accuracy in a solicitation strategy. From an ethical standpoint, if a valuation of their formerly joint real estate is dictated in an accessible and open public record, it is not an invasion of their privacy to use those figures to calculate a capacity.
That said, situations involving significant financial and lifestyle changes are not ideal times to solicit a gift, regardless of how assets are divided, and the real estate valuation will likely have changed again by the time a fundraising conversation is appropriate. Making a note to revisit the prospect’s finances in six to 12 months is an acceptable approach to determining their giving capacity.
This question was submitted anonymously to the Apra Ethics and Compliance Committee (ECC) inbox. If you’d like to ask a question, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.