Ask the Ethicist: Oversharing Donor Information?

Dear Ethicist,

An enthusiastic and headstrong fundraising volunteer with whom I work often goes off-script for meetings. Recently, he read aloud verbatim from a donor’s profile, saying, “I heard you just bought a house in Boca!” He then proceeded to leave that donor’s profile out for the public to see. One time he left a profile in a prospect’s office!

What should I do? Should I say something to him? Should I bring it to the attention of the volunteer’s VP and/or fundraiser, or would that be unnecessary? Should I advocate for changing the format of the research so that it doesn’t contain any “highly confidential” information — perhaps just a brief bio? I want to ensure confidentiality, but I don’t want to make a fuss over nothing. What should I do?



Dear Overexposed,

Donor and prospect confidentiality is not something to take lightly. If you have a rogue volunteer, however well-meaning they may be, give them tools to help guide them. Keep the confidential information in the hands of seasoned fundraisers who understand its highly confidential nature and how to use it to benefit your institution and its advancement. You should absolutely have your VP or fundraiser assigned to that volunteer explain the negative effects overexposure can have on relationships and giving.

Have a meeting with your fundraisers and those who will be using research in their fundraising, and discuss all of the above, along with any suggestions you may have to maintain donor/prospect confidentiality. You will also want to evaluate what information and level of detail you provide to volunteers.  

Knowledge is power. Confidentiality is critical.


The Ethicist

Kudos from the Apra Ethics Team

In a recent PRSPCT-L post and response, a researcher asked for some good examples of NCOA providers. The PRSPCT-L responses provided by John Smilde and Alan Hejnal gave us some great reminders about doing our due diligence when searching out vendors, including:

Be extra careful when shopping for vendors you are considering for any screening of your data. Always research your vendor prospects to make sure they have some history and good reputations.  

Make sure your vendor agreements are clear and specific about how the vendor will handle data, especially when working with a new vendor.

Thank you to all who share our mission to promote ethical practices in prospect research.

Have a question for the Apra Ethics & Compliance Committee? Send it to


What to do when the "rogue volunteer" is a Sr Staff Member?

September 12, 2017 02:34 PM by Jessica R. Wade

Thank you for this post. We have had this issue arise, but not from a volunteer fundraiser. One of the senior staff, in fact the senior-most member of staff, has left profiles in donors' offices after meetings with them. We in Development have been asked to reduce the amount of detail he receives in his briefings on constituents for this reason. What do you do when someone this high up in the organization isn't recognizing the confidentiality of donor profiles?

Response: What to do when the "rogue volunteer" is a Sr Staff Member?

October 4, 2017 01:58 PM by Emily Schmitt

Hi Jessica,

Thanks so much for your question. Below is a response from Lynn Lazar, on behalf of the APRA Ethics and Compliance Committee: 

Thank you for your question “What to do when the rogue volunteer is a Senior Staff member.”

Per your suggestion, you can reduce the amount of information for this particular staff member – which would eliminate the highly confidential and personal information, keeping it very general, but that also reduces the great influence prospect research can bring to a savvy fundraiser for a deeper more meaningful conversation and relationship.  

I am assuming your senior person runs or attends a development meeting? Can you use some of that time to go over the highly confidential nature of prospect research, best ways to share it, and most importantly how to dispose of it properly (see the ToolKit for all this and more). I recommend to my fundraising team that they don’t bring research into any meeting with them. They study it before the meeting and keep it safe. This reduces the chances of leaving research out for all to see.  

I always ask myself the following question when I do research (and your fundraisers should as well). Will anything I do jeopardize a gift? If I leave behind a highly confidential research profile on a prospect’s chair during a meeting, would the contents compromise the relationship? 

You will most likely have to use your best judgement as to whether this person can stick with the protocol. Try a meeting, if you don’t think they can adhere to the plan, stay with a briefing.

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