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Group: Most charities sell donor lists

Nonprofits also swap names in an attempt to raise more funds

The Boston Globe

December 1, 2004


By Bruce Mohl, Globe Staff

Most of the nation's charities are attempting to raise additional funds by selling the names of donors to marketing organizations or swapping mailing lists with other nonprofits, a charity watchdog group said yesterday.

Charity Navigator said a survey it conducted of nearly 3,300 charities found that only 18 percent have a donor privacy policy in place, 7 percent reserved the right to sell or swap donor names, and 75 percent did not respond to the survey.

Trent Stamp, the executive director of Charity Navigator, said it is logical to assume that a majority of the 75 percent that failed to respond to the survey did not want the public to know they sell or swap personal information about their donors to other groups.

Although it is legal for charities to share a donor's personal information with other groups, Stamp said the lack of privacy for donors is a growing concern. Increasingly, he said, a small donation to one charity is quickly followed by solicitations from a host of similar charitable groups.

''Benevolent individuals who choose to give should not have their generosity punished with unwanted telephone appeals and inundated mailboxes," Stamp said.

Individuals cannot escape the solicitations even if they put their name on state and national do-not-call lists. Charities are exempt from the do-not-call lists on First Amendment grounds.

Rebecca Haag, the executive director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, said her organization does not sell the names of its donors but does swap the names through mail-list brokers with other like-minded charities, including Planned Parenthood, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and the American Red Cross.

''This is a pretty common practice," Haag said. ''It's how you identify potential new donors."

Some charities have different privacy policies for donors who contribute online and through the mail. A spokesman for the American Foundation for AIDS Research said his group will not rent, sell, or share information gathered through its website with anyone. But he said the names and addresses of donors who contribute through the mail are often shared with other charities.

''Virtually all charities will exchange lists of donors," said John F. Logan, vice president and general counsel for the group.

Charity Navigator said other local charities that share or sell donor lists are the Catholic Schools Foundation and the South Africa Development Fund. Officials at both charities could not be reached to comment.

Many of the charities that do have privacy policies in place require donors to opt out if they don't want their personal information shared with other nonprofits or marketing companies, Stamp said.

According to the Charity Navigator survey, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, OxFam, the American Red Cross, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and the American Civil Liberties Union all require donors to opt out if they don't want their information shared with other groups.

The Audubon Society, for example, says on its website that member information is never sold or rented but occasionally exchanged with other nonprofits or other organizations sending out ''product offers and promotional mailings that we believe may be of interest to our members."

Audubon members who wish to opt out of such solicitation can do so online or by phone.

Stamp said the more consumer-friendly approach is to have a donor opt in if he wants his name and address shared with other groups. According to Stamp, charities with opt-in policies include the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the American Brain Tumor Association, and National Public Radio.

Charity Navigator, which analyzes the financial soundness of charities at charitynavigator.org, yesterday began including a notation on privacy policies in each of its charity reports. It also allowed potential donors to restrict their searches to only those charities with privacy plans in place.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com

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