Charities are Spying on You – But That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing!

The June 2010 issue of SmartMoney magazine contained an interesting article, “Are Charities Spying On You?,” which discussed the different ways nonprofit organizations are trying to find out information – available from public sources – on current and prospective donors. As one who has worked in the field of data mining and predictive analytics, I found the article interesting in large part because of how well the nonprofit sector has made use of these very techniques in designing their campaigns, solicitations, and programming.

At first glance, it can seem frightening what charities can learn about you. For instance, the article mentions how some charities’ prospect-research departments look at LinkedIn profiles, survey your salary history, and even use satellite images to get information on the home in which you live. And there is a wealth of information out there about us: Zillow.com gives info about the value of our homes and those around it; if you write articles or letters to the editor of your newspaper, online versions can often be found on Google; buy or sell any real estate? That too gets published in the online version of the newspaper; and online bridal and baby shower registries, graduation and wedding announcements, and any other news are fair game. And your shopping history! If you buy online or through a catalog, your name ends up on mailing lists that charities buy. Face it, there’s a lot of information about us that is widely and publicly available.

But is this so terrible? For the most part, I don’t think so. Surely, it’s bad if that information is being used against you. But think of the ways this data mining proves beneficial:

Customization

Let’s assume that you and I are both donors to the Republican National Committee. That suggests we’re both politically active and politically conservative. But are we engaged with the RNC in the same way? Most likely not. You might have donated to the RNC because you’re a wealthy individual who values low taxes and opposes a national health care plan; I might have donated because I am a social conservative who wants prayer in public schools, favors school choice, and opposes abortion. By seeking out information on us, the RNC can tailor its communications in a manner that speaks to each of us individually, sending you information about how it’s fighting proposed tax hikes in various states, and sending me information about school choice initiatives. In this way, the RNC maintains its relevance to each of us.

In addition, it’s very likely, in this example, that you’re donating a lot more money to the RNC than I am. Hence, that would likely lead the RNC to offer you special perks, such as free passes for you and a guest to meet various candidates or attend special luncheons or events. For me, I might at best be given an autographed photo of the event – in exchange for a donation of course – or an invite to the same events, but with a donation of a lot of money requested. I might get information about when the next Tea Party rally in my area will be held. Or even a brief newsletter. One can argue that the treatment you’re getting vs. that of what I’m getting is unfair. However, think of it like this: at a casino, people who gamble regularly and heavily are given all sorts of complimentary perks: drinks, food, a host to attend to their needs, and even special reduced rate stays. That’s because these gamblers are making so much money for the casino, that the cost of these “comps” is small in comparison. In addition, the casino wants to make it more fun for these gamblers to lose money, so that they’ll keep on playing. In short, the special treatment you’re getting is something you’re paying for, if indirectly. I’m getting less because I’m giving less; you’re getting more because you’re giving more. And the charity will give you more to keep you giving more!

Reduced Waste

Before direct marketing got so sophisticated, mass marketing was the only tactic. If you had a product to sell, you sent the same solicitation to thousands, if not millions of people and hoped for a 1-2% response rate. Most people simply threw your solicitation in the garbage when it came in the mail. Many recipients didn’t have a need for the item you were selling or the appeal for which you were soliciting, and disregarded your piece. As a result, lots of paper was wasted, and the phrase “junk mail” came into existence. In addition, if you used follow-up methods, such as phone calls after the mailing, that got costly trying to qualify the leads, just because of the labor involved.

Now, with targeted marketing and list rental, sales, and sharing, charities can build predictive models that estimate each current and prospective donor’s likelihood of responding to a promotion. As a result, the charity doesn’t need to send out quite a large mailing; it can mail solely to those with the best chance of responding, reducing the amount of paper, print, and postage involved, not to mention reduced labor costs involved, both in the production of the piece and in the staffing of the outbound call center. In short, the charity’s data mining is helping the environment, reducing overhead, and increasing the top and bottom lines.

Better Programming

By knowing more about you, the charity can know what makes you “tick,” so that it can come up with programs that fit your needs. Even if you’re not a large donor, if you and other donors feel strongly about certain issues, or value certain programs, the charity can develop programs that are suitable to its members at large. And while many larger donors may be granted special privileges, their large donations can help fund the programs of those who donate less. Everybody wins.

Not bad at all

The data mining tactics charities use aren’t bad. People don’t want to be bombarded with solicitations for which they see no value in it for themselves. Data mining makes it very possible to give you an offer that is relevant to your situation, is cost-effective and resource-efficient, and design programs from which you’re likely to benefit. It is important to note, that while major donors get several great perks, charities must not ignore those whose donations are smaller, for two reasons: first, they have the potential to become major donors, and second, because of their smaller donations, it’s very likely their frequency of giving is greater. This can mean a great stream of gifts to the charity over time. Hence, charities should do things that show these donors they’re appreciated – and, quite often, this too is often accomplished by data mining.

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