Damned if we do

by Jini Stolk

I’m still reeling from the anti-spam legislation, so this recent headline in the Toronto Star seemed distinctly de trop: “Generous North York Widow Flooded with Charity Junk Mail.” This junk mail, we are told, consists of an admittedly very large number of funding requests from a variety of charities and nonprofits, some of whom she’s supported in the past: these are described in the article

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as “spammers.”

Unfair, unfair, unfair. We’re going to have to continue to reach out to our supporters for financial assistance by some means or other. But perhaps this is a good time to examine our consciences and practices to make sure we’re doing unto others as we would like others to do unto us.

The article talks about “charities that routinely share mailing lists.” As far as I know, the routine sharing of mailing lists was severely reduced (in the arts sector certainly) with the passage of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which came into force between 2001 and 2004. Under PIPEDA, organization are required to clearly inform people why they’re collecting personal information, including mailing addresses, and get their consent for all uses; they have to limit the amount and type of information gathered to what is necessary; and they can’t use or disclose personal information for any reason other than the purpose for which it was collected and for which they have consent.

The Act doesn’t exempt charities or nonprofits from these requirements, although collecting membership fees, compiling a list of members’ names and addresses, mailing out newsletters, and fundraising are not considered commercial activities and do not fall under the Act. But selling, bartering or leasing donor, membership or other fundraising lists is definitely precluded without specific consent. The Act does allow the use of a simple opt-out process to obtain consent, and it looks like some charities are still assuming consent unless otherwise notified – thereby annoying elderly widows, middle-aged marrieds, and young singles.

We really don’t want to flood potential donors with so many appeals that they become disgusted, and we should be very careful indeed about sharing, much less selling, our lists. These are practices guaranteed to backfire, breaking the trust between charitable organizations and the people who care about them.

Again, I can’t think of any arts organization that abuses their donor relations in these ways. But in an age where intimate details about donor prospects, and really anyone else, are easily found online – and where donor research through the web is now an important part of every fundraiser’s tool kit – all of these privacy regulations seem a bit fruitless and recherché.

Just remember that there is abundant evidence that charitable giving is a powerful secret to happiness, health and even material prosperity. But these outcomes definitely rest on a relationship of shared caring and trust between charitable organization and donor.


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