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

Dear Ethicist,

I am so horrified to learn that Federal Election Commission (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?

Sincerely,
Politically Flummoxed

 

Dear Politically Flummoxed, as well as all gentle readers of this response,

You may recall The Ethicist originally provided advisement on using FEC data in 2018. Since that time, Apra Ethics and Compliance Committee has reviewed the updated Federal Election Campaign Act and has revised the toolkit available here, and specifically with regard to FEC data, advises as follows:

  • Under the United States’ Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act), information about individual contributors taken from Federal Election Commission (FEC or Commission) reports cannot be sold or used for soliciting contributions (including any political or charitable contribution) or for any commercial purpose. To protect the privacy of individual contributors, the Act prohibits the sale or use of any information about those donors, including their names and addresses, for the purpose of soliciting contributions or for commercial purposes. Commission regulations also prohibit the use of this information to solicit donations, including charitable donations.
  • This restriction applies only to the use of individual contributor information. Any person may compile and sell the names of political committees. Additionally, Commission regulations provide that the restriction does not 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 conduct commercial activity. https://www.fec.gov/updates/sale-or-use-contributor-information/
  • While prior advice from Apra’s Ethics & Compliance Committee suggested looking up political contribution data for an organization’s donors/prospective donors was not in violation of the Act, the above language, which was updated by the FEC in November 2018, suggests otherwise. Even if an organization is not harvesting names of prospective contributors, and their contact information from FEC reports, it is not a permissible use to look up and use any political contribution data in charitable solicitation purposes, which includes prospect development.

Vendors in our space do provide FEC data – at least, this remains true as of the date of this posting. This does not suggest our vendors are unethical. You may notice disclaimers regarding the FEC data on our vendors’ platforms indicating that you, the user, are assuming the risk in utilizing the data. In our positions as prospect development professionals, whether we are data scientists or prospect researchers or prospect relationship managers for our organizations, we are obligated to mitigate the risks to our organizations regarding the activities we undertake on behalf of our organizations. We are accountable, per our Apra Ethics Statement:

Accountability
Members shall respect the privacy of donors and prospects and conduct their work with the highest level of discretion. They shall adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of all applicable laws and all policies of their organization. They shall conduct themselves in the utmost professional manner in accordance with the standards of their organization.”
(Bold emphasis added by The Ethicist.)

Bottom line: There is no gray area in this case. FEC expressly prohibits use of contribution data for soliciting contributions, including charitable contributions.

The Ethicist suggests you review with your organization the updated Ethics and Compliance Toolkit and adjust your policies and procedures accordingly. Consult with your organization’s general counsel if necessary. And, of course, feel free to share this ATE with your colleagues.

Ethically yours,

The Ethicist

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