No Trespassing? Privacy, Property, and Prospect Research

Home, home, sweet, sweet, home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!
~ Home Sweet Home by John Howard Payne (1791-1852)

According to a recent Pew Research study, only 22% of Americans are comfortable with government putting data about individual mortgages online, while 54% are comfortable with the government sharing real estate transactions online.

Just think for a moment. What might this perception mean for the practice and ethics of prospect research, where online access to property data can be our bread and butter?

When I’ve given how-to presentations about prospect research, I have always advised my audience that prospect research “begins at home.” A double meaning is fully intended. I recommend that they begin with the constituent records housed in their databases, and with their prospects’ homes as the primary identifiable asset. And, for the great majority of the prospects we look at, those whose philanthropic capacity is less than $1 million, a home or homes may be the only hard assets we find to construct that capacity number. In fact, the wealth in homes and neighborhoods can be such reliable predictors of capacity, that the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association uses Census tract data as a placeholder for capacity in prioritizing unrated prospects.

As prospect researchers, we know that transformational gifts are more commonly given from assets than they are from income. So the property assessment or mortgage data we find is often just the beginning of our prospect research story. Many of us will try to take a look at pictures of the property on Google Street View or Zillow, looking for amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, lake access, and long, winding driveways. In a similar vein, we will comb through contact reports and internet searches for information about things like art collections, boats, and antique cars. All of this helps us refine the asset inventory which shapes our philanthropic capacity calculation, and – often more importantly – provides a glimpse into the interests and passions of our prospects.

So how can we reconcile this Pew Research report with our practice of prospect research? For, just as a home serves as a bellwether for philanthropic capacity in prospect research, it also serves, for many, many people, as the bellwether for their own personal privacy. And I don’t imagine that they would be reassured knowing that the registrar of deeds has paper, microfiche, or electronic copies of all their property transactions and mortgages.

Every year or so there will be a news story about prospect research and advancement offices digging into their donors’ private lives. Jen Filla, of Aspire Research Group, presented an on-point analysis and resource list of this phenomena in 2012. There is no shortage of more recent stories any of us could add to Filla’s bibliography, like this one about social media which appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 4, 2015.

In his book, Privacy (Picador, 2012), Garret Keizer conducts a wide-ranging philosophical and historical analysis of privacy. In discussing the history of the concept of privacy in American law, Keizer points out two important moments, both of which frame their definition of privacy with the home. The first is, of course, in the Bill of Rights, in particular, the Fourth Amendment. This is the amendment which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.” The second moment is in fact the first American court case in which the word “privacy” actually appears: DeMay v. Roberts in 1881, in which the court wrote “the plaintiff had a legal right to the privacy of her apartment.” Keizer describes how American case law equates the home with privacy:

As the judge in Payton v. New York (1980) noted, there is a “zone of privacy” in America that is nowhere “more clearly defined when bounded by the unambiguous dimensions of a person’s home.” (82)

The home can be a symbol of privacy and a measure of wealth. But, in the words of John Howard Payne, the nineteenth century poet and songwriter with whose words I began this piece, it can also be a place of comfort:

To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;
No more from that cottage again will I roam;
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

A comfortable home: one which offers private solace, and which signifies a certain level of wealth.

It is telling that Pew Research also uses the word comfortable to describe how people feel about the government publishing property data. Does the word “comfortable” suggest that the boundaries of privacy are relative – different for every person – and not simply that which is not public? And, with these hard numbers to show us how people feel about their property data and privacy, is it enough to tell ourselves that the data we access and use in prospect research is always and only public data? I’m afraid I don’t have the answers.

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