Taking a Hard Look at Prospect Research Ethics


Every growing nonprofit’s major gift program depends in part on the fundraising intelligence that prospect researchers provide.  But how do you know if your research is credible and ethical?  How can you work as efficiently as you can without taking unethical shortcuts?

Under Pressure

Prospect development is full of pressures.  On any given day, researchers have a growing list of prospects to screen and vet, rabbit holes of public and proprietary data to navigate, last minute profiles to deliver, wealth capacities to calculate, and the list goes on.

It’s easy to identify, consider, and maybe even take shortcuts in your research.  Isn’t that the best way to get things done?  Consider two scenarios proposed by Lori Lawson and Liz Rejman.

  • You are the only researcher at an organization.  You need to find the email address and cell phone number for an ultra-wealthy prospect with major political connections.  After some searching, you find the prospect’s email and phone number.  The source?  Wikileaks.  Is it still okay to use this information?
  • You heard about a social media “hack” that helps you find email addresses in a pinch.  First, go to Facebook’s main page and try to log in as John Smith.  Then, select “I forgot my password.”  The next screen will say, “Your password has been emailed to”  Great!  But wait, isn’t John now going to get a password reset email in his inbox?  Did we just cross a line here?

To answer these questions, let’s look at Apra’s Statement of Ethics.  Here’s how Apra introduces the Statement:

Advancement researchers must balance an individual’s right to privacy with the needs of their institutions to collect, analyze, record, maintain, use, and disseminate information. This balance is not always easy to maintain.

Take a few minutes to read in full and think about Apra’s ethical guidelines.  Now look at those two scenarios again.  What do you think?

Learning Opportunity

In your day-to-day work, how often do you think about prospect research ethics?  It’s a complex and sometimes confusing topic that leaves many researchers with more questions than answers.  So here’s the question: Who has the time to research the ethics of research?

And here’s the real question: If you could learn what you need to know about prospect research ethics in just 25 minutes, would you take that opportunity?

As a part of the prospect development community and the nonprofit ecosystem at large, iWave wants to share and uphold ethical guidelines laid out by organizations like Apra.  That’s why we’ve partnered with Lori Lawson, CEO of, for a new webinar on prospect research ethics.

Prospect Development and Ethical Sourcing: Mitigating Your Organization’s Risk is a new webinar that aims to answer your questions about prospect research ethics.  Lori will share ways your skills could help your nonprofit manage its risk with regard to data utilization.  She will also share how you, as a prospect development professional, can have a seat at that table.

Stay informed!  Join us August 30th at 2pm EST to hear Lori’s ethics insight.

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About the author: Ryan McCarvill joined the iWave team in 2016. Ryan enjoys meeting and learning from nonprofit professionals, researching trends in the nonprofit community, and offering strategies for development teams to use iWave’s solutions to meet and exceed their fundraising goals.


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