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.