I want to share this story:

In a small, quiet town, Ethel, a 90-year-old woman with a spirit as indomitable as the passing of time, carried out her daily ritual.

Each morning, she would make her way, despite a betraying hip, to the rusted mailbox at the end of her gravel driveway. The mailbox, more often than not, contained calendars from various nonprofits, each one a colorful but unsolicited reminder of the world beyond her reach.

These calendars, intended as gentle nudges towards philanthropy, became unintended burdens, piling up in her home, gathering dust and taking space.

Finally, the day came when Ethel, feeling duty-bound to recycle all those calendars, braving the pain of her arthritic hips and the risk of a bad fall,  bundled them up and set out for the recycling center.

I tell this story to add emphasis and additional warning to Kevin’s post (What’s the Frequency Kenneth) on frequency that cites the important factor of “irritation.”

There’s more to this problem of bombarding donors than mere “irritation”. What’s so often overlooked by nonprofits who too often offer up their donor lists to data cooperatives, list brokers or exchanges without careful though is the very real damage it inflicts on a large segment of the donor population –the elderly.

The story of Ethel was relayed to  me by Jim Burton, founder of  The Data Center and a pioneer in managing donor data. I’ve known and worked with Jim for 55 years and two traits have always impressed me: his ability to stay on the leading edge of technology and his old-fashioned concern for the proper treatment of donors.

We were discussing his latest use of AI in segmenting files, when conversation turned to donor retention.  Jim is one of the few folks in the data field (Jay Love, founder of e-Tapestry and Bloomerang is another) who actually cares about donor retention –and does something about it.

In this case Jim had recently finished a round of phone calls he regularly makes to donors to check on their feelings about giving and  told me of his conversation with Ethel.  He also reported that this was not a rare example.  Both in his phone calls and in monitoring the comment pages of nonprofit websites he’s seeing a growing wave of irritation, frustration and downright anger on the part of donors.

Jim’s report is more than mere anecdote.  It’s a poignant reminder that as the population ages (currently there are 58 million Americans 65 and older; and the number is expected to grow by 46% by 2050) as sure as the sun rises the number of scams and financial abuse  aimed at older donors will increase.

We’ve already seen this with the $150 million penalty imposed by the Federal Trade Commission on Epsilon Data for making  the donor data it held available to scammers and fraudsters.   And that’s not an isolated case.  Increasingly federal and state regulators are on the lookout for various forms of elder abuse.

It’s important that legitimate nonprofit organizations pay attention and avoid the unintentional fundraising practices (too much volume, too many guilt-inducing tschotskes) that inadvertently contribute to the exploitation of older Americans.

The wise and caring fundraiser will set tough standards where both the security and use of its donor lists are concerned.  A wise and caring fundraiser will be aware of and honor the privacy laws involving opt-in and opt-out on the use of digital lists. A wise and caring fundraiser will stay alert to practices and policies of cooperate databases, brokers and CRMs it deals with.

Unless we all pay closer attention to how we treat donors and the data about them today’s story about Ethel may have an ending that goes something like..

Meanwhile, in the capital a   young government lawyer named Daniel, had discovered the unintended consequences of these seemingly well-meant gestures representing the flood of mail. But, looking beyond the surface, he recognized Esther’s plight as a violation of dignity, an exploitation veiled in the guise of charity.  Armed with a quiver of Elder Abuse laws he prepared the lawsuit against the data broker and the charities that had trafficked in the use of Ethel’s name and address.

What are you doing to avoid a story like this?


P.S.  Because Jim told me about Ethel  after sharing insights on the use of AI for segmentation, I decided to use a little AI to drive home the point of taking care to whom and how you entrust donor data.  I asked for its advice in the form of a limerick:

Their intent was to help, not to harm,

Spreading goodwill with open arm.

 But their data, once lent,

To a swindler was sent,

Causing widows undue stress and alarm.

The scam spoke of vets in dire need,

 Or a lottery win, guaranteed.

Elderly hearts, so kind,

To deceit became blind,

In their eagerness to help, they proceeded.

The charity, shocked to its core,

 Learned a lesson it couldn’t ignore.

Vowed to safeguard the trust,

 And to vet with more “must”,

So their donors’ goodwill would endure.

From this tale, let us all take heed,

To check where our good deeds may lead.

For the innocent’s share,

 Can be trapped unaware,

In the scammer’s nefarious deed.