I’m sure I can’t be the only person in the charity sector feeling confused and overwhelmed by all the recent developments around data protection. The proliferation of blogs, articles, on-line forums and briefing seminars on the topic are evidence of that.

And yet, having read a good number of these, the situation in relation to wealth screening and prospect research remains unclear.

Recent fines issued by the ICO have highlighted concerns about these practices, which are fundamental to major donor fundraising. The subsequent furore, including headlines in national newspapers like, ‘Shaming of the Charity Vultures’, has left prospect researchers and major donor fundraisers confused and uncertain about what is acceptable.

I won’t even attempt to cover the legal complexities, but what it seems to boil down to is this: whether it is lawful for a charity to carry out prospect research or wealth screening, and whether the charity needs ‘explicit’ consent from the individual in order to do so.

Now I’m going to stick my neck out here, and say that I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit offended if a charity decided to use public domain data to find out if I might be a major donor. I might be a little surprised, because that’s a very unlikely scenario!

When I sign up for loyalty card schemes, buy products, use my credit card etc, I expect that complicated multi-page privacy policies give permission for all sorts of research by commercial companies into the details of my private life.

I agree that charities could and should be more transparent with their supporters and the public as to what kind of information they hold, and why it’s important to carry out certain types of public domain research into actual or potential donors.

However there seems to be a shocking ‘double standard’ going on here which is unfairly penalising charities for going about their quite legitimate work. It is perfectly acceptable in my view that charities, like any commercial organisation, be allowed to find out more about the background and wealth of their supporters in order to make an appropriate approach, or justify investing their limited resources in pursuing a relationship with them.

I was originally planning to provide a simple good practice check-list for charities in relation to wealth screening and prospect research. However I’ve now learnt that a key date is fast approaching which could turn the whole thing even more upside down.

At an invitation-only event on the 21st of February, the Information Commissioner’s staff will tell charities and the Fundraising Regulator whether it is ‘legitimate’ for charities to use public domain information to identify or understand potential donors.

In other words, whether – assuming all the appropriate privacy policies and practices are in place – the charity can carry out research on individuals without their explicit consent. If the answer is NO, then I believe this effectively puts an end to charities pursuing philanthropic donations, with huge implications for them, their beneficiaries and supporters.

Is that really a good outcome?

I will keep you posted on the results of this meeting and the implications in due course…

For further information:
In my extensive browsing around the Internet to find enlightenment, I have found articles on this website from the UK wealth screening organisation, Factary, extremely helpful in explaining the current situation in regard to wealth screening and providing a balanced commentary.