Ask the Ethicist: Is a Photo Worth 1,000 Headaches?

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By the Apra Ethicist

Dear Ethicist,

We’ve all heard that a picture’s worth 1,000 words. Recently, I’ve heard some debate about the ethics surrounding photos in our fundraising databases. Can I store pictures of our constituents from social media or other outside sources in my database? Is there a best practice around collecting constituents’ photos? Does the source itself matter? How can I provide photos for briefings, bios, etc. without finding myself in unethical territory?


A photo is worth 1,000 headaches

Dear Headaches,

Photos seem like a simple thing until you start digging into the issue. The utilization of photos raises several ethical concerns, mostly related to copyright infringement, biometric information privacy acts, as well how we ensure the photo’s accuracy.

Apra’s Ethics and Compliance Toolkit states that the very best practice for obtaining a prospect or donor’s photo is by asking them for it. This gives front-line fundraisers an opportunity to further connect with the prospect. It also gives that prospect a way to share their accomplishments in a way, and to the extent that they are comfortable with.

Another option is to allow prospects to update profiles (such as an alumni profile) with their biography and photograph, with the knowledge that the information the donor provides will be shared and stored by the organization. This allows the prospect to give permission for their image to be collected and stored.

However, most often these direct or indirect ways of obtaining photos are not feasible. So, what can you do to ensure you are in compliance?

  • First, consult with your legal counsel or relevant partner to verify your organization’s risk tolerance regarding the issue of saving photos in your database. There is an argument to be made about Fair Use — which permits the unlicensed use of copyright-protected work for noncommercial, nonprofit purposes. However, this should be discussed with counsel.
  • If you do save photos, you should always note the source of the photo and make sure photos are saved from sites that do not explicitly forbid saving of content. Check the small print on the user agreement for the site before saving any photos.
  • For photos used in internal briefings, if you use a photo from an external source, you should absolutely document the source in the briefing (i.e., under the photo include the web link). You may want to include a note in any confidentiality statement you attach to an internal briefing, stating that photos were obtained from public websites using fair use guidelines for this document only.
  • If you utilize internally sourced photos (such as from an event), make sure that the event includes a photo release for attendees that allows your department to use the photos. Often at a special event, your organization may have worked with an outside vendor. Checking the vendor agreement to understand the legal ownership of the photos is important as well.
  • As always, ensure that you are up to date with privacy legislation that applies to your location or sector. Laws such as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) involve facial geometry, which photos show.

While these extra steps may seem like a lot at first, they help safeguard your organization while ensuring proper safekeeping and care of your constituents’ information.


The Ethicist

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