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Some donors ask charities not to ask for more money, sell names to other groups

Mercury News

January 23, 2005


by Margaret Steen

Americans may be generous, as the outpouring of donations after last month's tsunami in South Asia showed. But it appears they also like to be left alone.

Some donors are bristling about charities that sell or give out their names for fundraising purposes, or solicit them for repeat donations. They are increasingly aggressive about asking whether their information will be shared with others -- before they open their checkbooks. And many online donors are explicitly telling even the groups to which they're donating that they do not want to be contacted again.

The push for donor privacy could make future fundraising even more difficult for non-profits. But it could be a relief to donors who don't want one donation to lead to a lifetime of junk mail, phone calls and even e-mail.

Among the most controversial practices from the donors' point of view is the sharing of postal addresses.

The Web site Charity Navigator started posting information about non-profits' privacy policies last month after finding that the No. 1 complaint users had about charities they found on the site was that they later shared donors' information. Of the 3,500 large charities evaluated by Charity Navigator, only about 20 percent of them have a privacy policy in place, said Trent Stamp, executive director.

'No bigger disconnect'

"I think there is no bigger disconnect in the non-profit world" than on the issue of sharing donor contact information with other groups, Stamp said. "Charities will tell you that it is standard operating procedure. Donors will tell you that they feel violated."

Rebekah Children's Services in Gilroy has found the same concern among donors.

"People who get our newsletter ask us right up front if we sell or distribute the mailing list," said Eleanor Villarreal, chief development officer. Her group does not, and she tells them so.

Donors such as Nathalie Pataky of Sunnyvale say they prefer to decide for themselves when to make a gift.

"I don't like them sharing my name with other people," said Pataky, who is chief financial officer of Sunnyvale Foreign Car Service.

Although many charities say they do not share their mailing lists, the practice is not uncommon.

Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose sometimes exchanges mailing lists with other groups located downtown or with other groups that would be likely to interest the museum's members. It offers members a chance to opt out of having their information shared.

Marilee Jennings, the museum's associate director, said that although she occasionally hears from a member who is upset after receiving a solicitation from another group, the museum shares the lists as a way of helping build a stronger arts community in downtown San Jose.

"It is a dilemma for every organization, and we really did struggle with it," Jennings said. "If we can work together to nurture this community of subscribers and members and donors, it's in all of our best interests."

Even groups that don't let anyone else use their own mailing list may use list brokers to get lists of other potential donors, including some from other non-profit organizations.

"We actually could make money by selling our donors' names," said Christine Benninger, president of Humane Society Silicon Valley. But she said her group has generated more loyalty from the 33,000 people on its mailing list by not giving their information to anyone else.

Many charities that do not give other groups access to their mailing lists do so to try to keep from offending donors. But not everyone is offended.

"I don't mind at all if they send me something," said Maria Fiorito, an administrative assistant from Mountain View who gives to charities directly as well as through her church. "If it's a subject that really needs to be looked at, then I'm glad I saw it in my mail."

So far, the sharing of lists has not gone online. But online donors have another privacy concern -- they don't want to be contacted repeatedly by a charity they've given money to.

"They want to decide when they want to make a gift. They don't want to be continually asked to make another gift," said Magi Young, chief development officer for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. Catholic Charities has noticed an increasing number of online donors asking not to be contacted again.

Contact with donors

For now, the numbers are not large enough to hurt the group's fundraising efforts, Young said. And she hopes it stays that way.

"You want to be able to contact your donors," Young said. "You want to be able to tell them the good things that are happening as a result of their gift."

Most new online donors to relief agencies that are clients of GetActive Software, a Berkeley software provider for online fundraising, are also asking the charity not to contact them again.

"One of the things that we think contributes to this trend is e-mail overload," said Sheeraz Haji, chief executive officer of GetActive. "Spam is a very, very real problem that makes it more challenging for non-profits to raise money online."

It remains to be seen how big an impact online donors' quest for privacy will have on the fundraising world. People who make donations after a disaster often don't want to become a regular contributor to a charity, experts said. So it may be that many of those who are asking not to be contacted wouldn't have given again in any event.

In addition, online donations still make up just a small percentage of all charitable gifts.

"The transition from traditional offline fundraising to online has been slow," said Nick Allen, president of Donordigital, a San Francisco online fundraising and marketing company for non-profits.

Still, it's cheaper for non-profits to get donations from people who have already given to them before than to find new donors, so if new donors don't want further contact, fundraising costs could go up.

Contact Margaret Steen at msteen@mercurynews.com or (408) 278-3499.

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