Ask the Ethicist: Help! Did I Violate FEC Rules?

Dear Ethicist,

I am so horrified to learn that FEC political contribution data is forbidden for use by nonprofit and higher education organizations for fundraising. How is this true? Doesn’t every wealth screening company in our sector make use of this information? What’s an ethical researcher to do?

Politically Flummoxed

Dear Politically Flummoxed,

Yes, you may have heard the U.S. Federal Election Commission has rules regarding permissible uses of its political contribution data. Now, this is not the same as the “permissible uses” phrase you hear with regard to other sources like social media. Rather, this is the law, and you can put your organization at risk by utilizing this information in a way that is not allowed. Here is the restriction:

“Reports and statements filed by political committees may be inspected and copied by anyone. The names and addresses of individual contributors, however, may not be sold or used for any commercial purpose or to solicit any type of contribution or donation, such as political or charitable contributions. 2 U.S.C. §438(a)(4); 11 CFR 104.15. This restriction applies to Federal reports and statements filed in Washington, as well as in each state. Any person who violates this restriction is subject to the penalties of 2 U.S.C. §437g. Congress created this restriction to protect the privacy of individual contributors (Advisory Opinions (AOs) 1981-38, 1980-101 and 1980-78). Note: This restriction applies only to the use of individual contributor information, not to the use of names and addresses of political committees. Commercial vendors may compile and sell the names of political committees....

The ‘sale and use’ restriction does not, however, apply to the use of individual contributor information in newspapers, magazines, books or similar communications, as long as the principal purpose of the communication is not to solicit contributions or to conduct a commercial activity. 11 CFR 104.15(c).”


Permissible Uses and Impermissible Uses are provided on the following page:

While wealth screening companies can provide your organization with the capacity to match your known prospects and donors to political contribution data via the FEC, those companies are not prospecting for you. That is, you provide the name and they provide the data. Your organization already has a relationship with these individuals, and learning more about known persons does not appear to be restricted. Your organization is not using the contribution data via the FEC to create a new record in your database for the purposes of solicitation. As always, you should check with your own internal counsel to verify this is in line with their interpretation of the law.

Can you use FEC data at your organization? There are many organizations that err on the side of caution and do not utilize FEC data in any case whatsoever. As a prospect development professional, part of your charge is to mitigate risk for your organization. Ultimately, it is up to your organization to determine the best path. Again, check with your organization's internal counsel to determine what is best for your organization.

Ethically yours,
The Ethicist

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