Nonprofit organizations can and do share their mailing lists with other organizations. For better or worse, it is part of the fundraising world. Just because one can do a thing, however, does not automatically mean one should, and just because one has a right to do something, does not necessarily mean one is right in doing it.
Sharing donor lists is one way for nonprofits to network with each other, and the information sharing can be a means of connecting potential donors to the causes they care about. It’s not always a bad practice. There are, however, so many potential problems that organizations would do well to be very clear about what they are sharing and why.
The ninth tenet of the Donor’s Bill of Rights stipulates that a donor has the right to opt out of any lists that may be shared with other organizations, except where their information is required by law. Nonprofits are legally obligated to safeguard certain kinds of donor information, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to make donors aware of what information they collect and how they use it.
The decision to share or not is one that should not be taken lightly, and there are at least three major considerations that need to be addressed.
1. Always Put the Relationships First
Development work is not about fundraising—at least not primarily. Rather, development is about doing what is needed to help the organization transform into what it aspires to be, and that means cultivating good relationships and safeguarding them. Take care of the relationships, and whatever money is needed will follow organically from them.
Relationships, however, are extremely fragile and easily damaged. Just because one gives a gift to, say, a cancer research organization does not mean that individual wants to suddenly and unexpectedly start receiving mail from five new organizations. Consider how donors might feel if their information was being shared without their consent.
2. Be Transparent About What You Share and With Whom
If you are going to share your mailing list with another organization(s), then be explicit about that with your donors. This can be handled easily by posting a list of the organizations you share with to your website. Also, include this information in your communications with new donors. Ideally, this would be included in a new donor welcome packet.
3. Make It Easy for Donors to Opt Out
Read the language in the ninth tenet closely: “…to have the opportunity [emphasis added] for their names to be deleted…” This means that if you are going to share lists, and still honor the Donor’s Bill of Rights, then you have to actively give donors a means to tell you “no.” Of course, that could take a number of forms, but the important thing is that you do it, and make sure all your donors know that opting out is available to them.