A university, a museum, or a charity does not raise £10m or £50m or more by accident. An alumna did not wake up one morning thinking “I must give £1m to my alma mater.”
This happened because a dedicated group of professionals managed a process that led to the alumna being asked for a very large philanthropic gift.
At the heart of that process was, and is, the prospect research team. The team used – like we all do – public domain information to identify and understand potential supporters.
But now one government agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office, wants to stop us using public domain information. In the emotionally-worded press release that accompanied the penalties for the British Heart Foundation and RSPCA, the ICO says that “companies used other information from publically [sic]-available sources to investigate income, property values, lifestyle and even friendship circles.” ICO staff members at fundraising and research conferences throughout 2016 told us that the information on directors held by Companies House is compiled for one purpose (regulation of business) and therefore cannot be used for another (prospect research.)
So perhaps we cannot use public domain information to identify and understand potential supporters.
But think for a moment.
Why do I have my profile in LinkedIn? What is my ‘purpose’? Is it just a marketing tool, showing potential clients what a clever chap I am? No! I had all sorts of purposes in mind when I created my profile in LinkedIn. I wanted to reassure clients that I was, and am, a decent person. I am proud of what I have done and wanted – sorry folks, this gets personal – to boast a wee bit about setting up Factary, about the books I have written and the languages I speak. I wanted access to the profiles of other people with whom I might work or even play. I wanted to explain who I am and how I got here – it’s cathartic. And I wanted a useful depository for my lifeline – to remind me of exactly when I went to school or which year I started in fundraising.
I had a whole variety of ‘purposes.’
As a result, I have a very wide variety of ‘expectations.’ This word is important, because the ICO believes that “millions of people who give their time and money to benefit good causes will be saddened” by the news that charities targeted them for more money; in other words, this is about what people expect. With my profile in LinkedIn I expected that people would look at my personal story. I expected that Southampton Uni, my alma mater, would contact me about a donation (they did.) I expected that I would be networked to, and with (and indeed welcomed that opportunity.)
The person who has her biography in Who’s Who, or who gives a personal interview in the Times, or who is listed as the director of a company, or as the trustee of a charitable foundation has the same wide range of expectations.
The ‘purpose’ of a personal interview in the Times is to sell advertising space on the facing page of the newspaper; “All the papers that matter live off their advertisements,” said George Orwell, in Why I Write*.
But that is not the ‘purpose’ that the interviewee had in mind when she was approached by the journalist. Nor is it the ‘expectation’ of the interviewee. She knows, when she agrees to give the interview, that her warts-and-all will be exposed to public view. She expects that she will receive praise, opprobrium, investor pitches, car sales teams and an approach from a headhunter as the result of her interview.
The Public Domain
Information on company directors in Companies House – the Registrar of Companies for England and Wales – is made public for various purposes. The Registrar was created by The Joint Stock Companies Act of 1844. In the debate of the Bill that would create the Act (3rd July 1844), Mr Gladstone said “The principal object of the Bill was, that there should be established a public office, to which all parties soliciting to take part in Joint Stock Companies might repair, in order to know the real history of these companies.” Mr Gladstone was talking very clearly about corruption; “…it was most important that the Legislature should put a stop to the system that had been so long carried on of attaching the names of hon. Members, and men of importance and property, to schemes in order to entrap the unwary.”
So here again, at Companies House, we have a variety of purposes for information in the public domain. It is right and proper that prospect researchers use Companies House information to establish the “real history” of “men of importance and property”, and, 172 years after Mr Gladstone’s speech, of women of importance and property too.
All the universities that are engaged in raising funds, along with our theatres, museums and charities, manage a process that results in high-value philanthropy. At the heart of that managed process is prospect research. And alongside every prospect researcher is public domain information.
People in the public domain – in Who’s Who, or LinkedIn, the Times or Companies House – are there for a variety of ‘purposes.’ They expect that the information will be used in a variety of ways – including, yes, by people who will lead them into great philanthropic acts.
We prospect researchers do great works with public domain information. It is wholly legitimate that we use public domain information for this purpose. We must defend our right to do so.
Chris Carnie is the author of “How Philanthropy is Changing in Europe”, published by Policy Press in January 2017. He writes in a personal capacity.
*The fuller quote, given here is:
“Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news.”