How much of development work is surveillance? It’s a question I began to ask myself the other night after I met a young woman who works for the alumni office of an elite university in Washington, D.C. She told me that a lot of her job is working with “big data” in order to find “good prospects.” She stalks low-level donors on Facebook and other social media to see things like where they vacation and what kind of schools their kids attend in order to predict whether they could soon become high-level donors.
We have all become immune in some ways to the loss of privacy that living in the twenty-first century seems to require. (The New York Times featured an article this week on parents who kept using baby monitors to spy on their children long after it’s even remotely necessary—like when the kids are five.) And perhaps given the high stakes of fundraising, particularly for a large university, development offices would use every tool at their disposal.
But there is something a little creepy about this level of monitoring. The Chronicle of Philanthropy regularly advertises webinars for reaching donors in particular demographic groups—young donors, female donors, Hispanic donors—and no doubt the use of big data can help in figuring out where development professionals should be targeting their efforts.
One question, though, is whether high-level donors will start to do more to protect their privacy. Or whether they will be put off by the strategies that are supposedly right for their demographic. All of this targeting may also make people less open to requests for money from their alma mater or other institutions. And, though this is hardly the concern of those institutions, it may make philanthropy less spontaneous, and more corporate.
A few years ago, the high school I attended received a record-level donation from a man who had been offered a scholarship by the school when he was younger. Circumstances did not allow him to graduate but he was so grateful that he remembered the institution in his will. The school administration was completely shocked—he was not on the radar of the development staff. Of course, heartwarming stories like this will still happen, but few of us will ever be off the radar for long.