Shades Of Gray: Social Media and Prospect Research | npENGAGE

Shades Of Gray: Social Media and Prospect Research

By on Oct 18, 2010 | NONPROFIT-FUNDRAISING

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On October 7, Kate Lindsay Breck posted a provocative blog about the ethics of using information gathered from social media sites in prospect research (“Facebook and Prospect Research: Too Big Brother?”).  Liz Rejman referenced Kate’s post in her session on social media at the APRA Canada meeting last week.  Liz also referenced a post by marketing consultant Mark Schaffer called “Snooping on Facebook: Not Just For Stalkers Any More”.  Liz led the group in an interesting discussion about where the lines of acceptable use of social media are drawn in the day to day work of a prospect researcher.

Liz posed these questions to the group: Are there social media sites that are clearly acceptable (that is, their content could be construed as in the “public domain”)?  Are there social media sites or content that are clearly beyond the pale as a source of prospect information?  Are there sites or content that may be acceptable or unacceptable depending on the context?

These are extremely useful questions.  As a research community, we need to begin drawing the lines and finding agreement upon what we can, what we should and what we should not use when we discover information that has been self-disclosed by our constituents on social media sites.

The assembled prospect researchers drew a few conclusions.  In the public domain are blog and Twitter posts.  The reasoning here is that a blog is an intentional public diary that is meant to be read by any and all citizens of the internet.  A Twitter post is simply a micro blog post which often includes a link to a blog or a web site that expands the tweet into a more complete thought.

Although my notes don’t reflect any mention of LinkedIn as being clearly in the public domain, I would propose that this site, which primarily serves as a place to post one’s resume online, falls into this category.

The wisdom of the group was that the information reported on a Facebook page is more ambiguous as to acceptable use.  Context makes a difference.  Establishing which contexts make a difference is hard to do, however.  The judgment of the individual researcher is what stands between personal disclosure and a violation of privacy.  Establishing this conceptual understanding is an important move forward.  Since this is a gray area, we need more discussion within the profession that helps to shed light that will guide the researcher’s judgment.

Regarding information that can never be used in a prospect’s profile, there was general agreement that information provided by a child is off limits.  Again, I see shades of gray here.  What about information about a child?  Are my statements on Facebook about my child’s disability, for instance, usable in a profile?  Such statements certainly could be relevant to a nonprofit mission if said disability is part of that mission.

Prior to the advent of social media, the research community had a pretty good handle on what is public and what is private.  These new media create a new set of conditions under which we operate.  New sources bring new ethical considerations.  A lively discussion among prospect researchers will bring about greater clarity regarding what is acceptable use and what is not.  Let’s keep that conversation going!

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Comments (3)

  • Liz Rejman says:

    Great post and great summary of the comments and discussion. I believe the consensus on LinkedIn was that there were no issue using it, given that it is considered the mecca for self promotion.

    Overall, I think it is important for prospect researchers to continue to discuss this and not take the issue of privacy in the context of social media for granted. I do also wonder about the donor's perspective. There is an assumption that people are fully aware of the privacy settings – but are they? And are people okay with the idea of a not for profit utilizing information they post on a social media site? The claim is that privacy is dead… but I do wonder how self aware people are about their lack of privacy on these sites.

    I also wonder about the usability of information when the prospect happens to also be your friend on Facebook – is it okay to use the information then?

    I look forward to continuing the conversation.

    • Dave Lamb says:

      Thanks for the comment Liz. Regarding the question you raise – what if the prospect also happens to be your friend on Facebook – is the answer any more clear if the prospect is a friend or fan of your nonprofit as opposed to you personally? If the person “fans” your organization, it strikes me that the relationship is more institutional and thus the information sharing more intentional. That is not to say that the information sharing is ENTIRELY intentional, but at least the Facebook user would be less surprised to learn you (the nonprofit) know information that comes from his or her Facebook account.

      However, if you simply happen to have the prospect as a Facebook friend, it seems like something of a violation of that trust to use personal information from his or her Facebook account for fundraising purposes. It becomes a little bit stalker-like if you go about friending the person after he or she becomes a prospect just to get at Facebook material.

  • Liz Rejman says:

    Great post and great summary of the comments and discussion. I believe the consensus on LinkedIn was that there were no issue using it, given that it is considered the mecca for self promotion.

    Overall, I think it is important for prospect researchers to continue to discuss this and not take the issue of privacy in the context of social media for granted. I do also wonder about the donor's perspective. There is an assumption that people are fully aware of the privacy settings – but are they? And are people okay with the idea of a not for profit utilizing information they post on a social media site? The claim is that privacy is dead… but I do wonder how self aware people are about their lack of privacy on these sites.

    I also wonder about the usability of information when the prospect happens to also be your friend on Facebook – is it okay to use the information then?

    I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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