Recently, a board member suggested to a colleague of ours that in expanding her staff, she should hire a “sales force” to go out and meet with donors. The board member, a gentleman who comes from the corporate world, thought that hiring development staff with a large portfolio of donor contacts, would be beneficial because, he said, “they would have a great network they could share with us.” Having more than 15 years of experience as a fund development professional, our colleague, explained to her board member that under the AFP Ethical Standard No. 18,

“Members shall adhere to the principle that all donor and prospect information created by, or on behalf of, an organization or a client is the property of that organization or client and shall not be transferred or utilized except on behalf of that organization or client.”

Actually, she might just have said, “that’s unethical.”

Unfortunately, the board member’s response was, “Well, you know it has to happen to some degree – people build relationships over time and then introduce those folks to the next organization.” It is hard to respond to the old school yard argument, “Everyone does it!”

But, everyone doesn’t do it. And we don’t do it not just for the obvious reason that it is a breach of confidentiality we agreed to and owe our former employer. We don’t do it because taking a list of donors from one organization to another doesn’t work.

First let us look at the ethical considerations of the act.

The Guidelines for Standard No. 18 read, in part:

a. Members do not physically or electronically remove or transmit information from the possession of a nonprofit organization or client without prior explicit consent.

d. Members do not imply information about specific prospects and donors they have learned in the course of work for one organization that would be a benefit to another as a consequence of their employment.

These two guidelines underline the proprietary rights the first organization has regarding prospect and donor information. The information was generated while the employee was working for the first employer and was therefore, work-generated materials. We can liken it to the engineering breakthrough created by an employee of Westinghouse whereby the breakthrough becomes the property of the corporation.

The guideline does allow for information that is in the public domain. (Guideline f) There is no prohibition from gathering information afresh from public records.

Now, we noted that carrying donor information from one organization to another is not only contrary to the professional code of ethical standards, it doesn’t work.

To understand why that is, we have to look at why people donate.

Generally speaking, people donate to a particular organization because they have a commitment to that organization or the cause for which it stands. The adage, “People give to people” carries only so far. In reality, people give to people when they have a basic commitment to the cause underlying the request. Further, “People give to people” has been refined to “Peers give to peers.” Few development professionals are seen as peers by major gift donors regardless of their social standing. The nature of being an employee changes that relationship.

So, if people make donations to charitable organizations because they have a basic level of commitment to the organization’s cause, having a “salesperson” whom they know and even trust, approach them for the benefit of another organization does not ipso facto ensure that the donor will make a gift to the new organization.

Where the relationship can be of benefit is by “opening the door;” creating an opportunity for the salesperson/fund raiser to introduce the donor to the new organization. But for that to work, the organization does not need to hire a salesperson who will “bring her client list with her.” It merely needs to hire an aggressive, go-getter, someone who will do the basic gumshoe work of identification, qualification, cultivation and solicitation.

So, how do we respond to our board members or CEO when they think all the organization needs is a person who has a good Rolodex? We respond with education and knowledge.