Donor List Selling or Exchange with Other Non-Profit Organizations

Many non-profit organizations exchange with other non-profits their mailing lists of people served, i.e. their clients, users, patrons, etc. They do this for marketing purposes, especially in the arts and culture world. And it could be said it is a good thing, in the spirit of cooperation and public service. But all too often the exchange, or even the sale, of nonprofit organizations’ donor listings is practiced. This is a much different method of mutual support, and it has its consequences. To many of us, such selling of our donors’ names and addresses would, in essence, be a “selling out” of our donors. It’s probably safe to say that most of them would take a rather dim view of this practice. And to seek the permission of the donors to allow their names to be widely and randomly distributed would be an exercise in futility.

Many of an organization’s donors were initially brought into its donor base by board members, other volunteers, donors and staff. Those donors are cultivated, solicited and maintained in an organized program of stewardship. Any within the organization’s “family” would most likely be dismayed, even angry, should the names and addresses of the donors they brought into the fold be sold to another non-profit organization. We can only imagine their reaction should the organization begin to lose or receive less money from donors as a result of sharing their names with other charities. These days, more and more unwelcome “cold” solicitations are being made through telefunding and direct mail programs to individuals due to the sale and exchange of donor lists. Consequently, these individuals are now receiving multiple solicitations which are unwanted and annoying. And should they discover how their names were obtained, chances are high they would be resentful.

There Are Many Other Opportunities for Sharing

The non-profit world, by its very nature, is generous with its support of other non-profits. Colleagues hardly ever turn away anyone from another non-profit wanting to discuss their fund-raising challenges and problems—or simply to engage in dialogue regarding fund-raising principles and concepts. The profession, as I know it, is made up of people who are happy to share their expertise with others from competing charities.

Sharing between non-profits is a good thing to do, and it happens quite often. They collaborate with another organization when the opportunity is there to obtain more money from a foundation with a partnership proposal. They share facility space with fellow nonprofits, share equipment, share program information, partner in advocacy activities, exchange brochures and other materials and, most of all, give encouragement.

Be generous, care and share, but never, ever give up your donors’ names and addresses to outside organizations. Your responsibility—first and foremost—is to see to it that your own organization does its best to raise as much money as it needs in order to serve those counting on you for your programs and services. And you do this by having your donors and prospects appropriately handled and nurtured for as much good as they can possibly do for you. Thus, you do not scatter their names to the winds.

Remember, The Name Belongs to the Donor

These days, “donor choice” is not only a “buzz” expression in the non-profit world, but it is in fact the frame of mind most donors have. They are far more thoughtful and selective when it comes to giving their money. They want to know where their money is going and how it will be used. It’s their charitable choice. However, they have no choice when their good names are indiscriminately given or sold to charities they do not know, and for the most part, would not be likely to support.

Taking It Personally

I can reinforce the argument against the selling or exchanging of donor listings with a personal experience. Some years ago I was telephoned and asked to make a gift to an organization which, though worthy, was one I would not typically support. I simply had no interest. But, the caller was an old friend and a board member of the organization. I complied with his request for a donation by making a small, one-time gift.

Along with my check, I instructed the organization of my intent that the gift was a one-time contribution. The next year, that organization sent a solicitation to me anyway, and asked for a renewed gift. The solicitation letter was addressed to “Mr. Anthony Podsail.” I replied by stating that my previous gift to their organization was a one-time response to a friend’s solicitation and, by the way, I pointed out that they had misspelled my name. Despite that request, I am solicited every year in the same “Podsail” way by that same organization. Over the years, I have received an annoyingly large number of similar requests for donations, by mail and phone calls from other, widely different, organizations—all asking “Mr. Podsail” for money. Speaking as a donor in the context of this argument against donor list selling or exchanging, were I a regular donor to the offending organization that gave my name to other non-profits, there is no doubt I would cease my support.

From that personal and bothersome experience, as well as from my position on behalf of the donors to any organization, I believe it’s a bad practice to give away your donor list—and even worse to sell it.

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  1. Within a nonprofit organization, who can have access to donor information — staff, volunteers, board members? Thank you. I am the executive director, and when a board member asks me if his/her friend made a donation, I am not sure how to reply.

    • Laura,
      Apart from the relatively few truly anonymous donors you may have giving to your organization, all of your other donors are probably listed anyway in your Annual Report
      under respective donation levels.

      However, even with a donor who requested his or her donation be anonymous, from what I have come to know when dealing with anonymous donors, most of them are talking about the avoidance of public recognition though press releases, wall plaques, listing in annual reports, etc.

      But, they usually know and understand that what they give is known to the organization’s close “family.”

      It appears to me, under the circumstances I have cited, that you should provide the information as requested by your board members.

  2. Where does the data base for most of the non-profit organizations come from? Such AARP?  Is it SSecurity?  Can I get a list of nonprofits that AARP exchanges lists with?


    Fairbanks, Ak

    • Joyce,
      Non-profit organizations mostly develop their own databases of donors and prospects which have shown an interest in what the organization does, and with prospects not yet having a connection with the organization, but for many good reasons, those prospects may be cultivated and brought into the fold.

      Should you wish to obtain a database from an organization, you must contact that organization directly.

      You read my argument against the practice. Those objections are shared by many organizations. Along with the reasons cited, we know that many organizations and businesses adhere to Privacy Rules, rules which preclude the giving of their donor bases to other organizations.

      You will need to directly deal with the AARP to carry out your request.


  3. “Perpetual Podsail”
    The last section of this article, “Taking It Personally,” referred to what was started over thirty years ago with an organization receiving my donation, and shortly thereafter, either trading or selling my name and address to another, or other, organizations. And doing so with a misspelling of my name to boot. As I described, such a practice made my misspelled name go “viral.”

    Just yesterday–after thirty plus years–there in my mail box was a large envelope, addressed, not to A. Poderis, but to A. Podsail. No kidding. Still going on for well over three decades.

    Though the solicitation came from one of the most well known and renown institutions in the world, the method of solicitation is among the worst of what I have seen over my long career.

    I have had no prior connection whatever with the organization, yet, beginning with a Podsail-personal exhortation in large and bold type to give my money printed on the mailing envelope, they continued with five enclosures, all “personalized.”
    There was even a sheet of forty peel and stick address labels for A. J. Podsail.

    This type of solicitation ranks with some of the worst when some charities send uncontrolled and cold-contact direct mail solicitations, beginning with donor list exchanging and selling. They even sent a personalized “Certificate of Appreciation.”

    Regular donors to the organization may wonder at how many such worthless mailings were made at what cost of spending their contributions.

    The lesson to be learned here? One of them, at least:
    Know Your Prospect.

    It is that simple, but even what we would expect to be one of the most sophisticated development operations in the world, has apparently not yet learned that important lesson.


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