Data is the New Oil

If Data is the New Oil, is Protecting Donor’s Personal Data the New Stewardship?

Data is an incredibly valuable resource; some might even say data is the new oil. Many charities have absorbed this piece of knowledge and invested in analytics tools and services as they focus on protecting donor data.

Google says ‘data is the new oil’ “was apparently coined in 2006 by Clive Humby, the British mathematician and architect of the Tesco Clubcard, a supermarket reward program”. Google Trends shows interest in ‘Data is the new oil’ peaked in early 2018 and has oscillated since then.

‘Data is the New Oil’

Source: Google Trends

As metaphors go, it has had a pretty good run. However, proponents of this meme might consider how oil is perceived geopolitically, environmentally and otherwise. It doesn’t really matter where you come down on the pro vs. anti-oil ledger: enormous time, energy and resources are deployed to manage perceptions.

A recent poll, reported in the Toronto Star1, showed “60 per cent of Canadians feel there needs to be government regulation of social media platforms”. The poll also showed:

Among social media companies, Facebook is the least trusted by Canadians. But social media companies in general rank the lowest in trust overall, below that of oil companies, telecom providers, banks and traditional news media.”

One of the major concerns about social media platforms is the protection of personal information. Typically, charities have been quite diligent about protecting donors’ personal information, including how much an individual has donated and their private contact information. However, other personal information includes geolocation services, preferences, and much more.

At a recent fundraisers’ conference, I learned some of the most sophisticated fundraising organizations in the United States are using phone location data to make assumptions about visits to college campuses, which is known to correlate with likelihood to give. We were warned about making assumptions about a fondness for the campus art gallery based on frequently observed data, especially when the gallery is next door to the cancer centre.

Privacy by design is a concept gaining support, buoyed by the tenets of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It essentially limits the repurposing of data without consent. The primary purpose of geolocation services is to help people get from point A to point B efficiently. And maybe, if the phone’s owner is savvy, to receive location-specific recommendations about nearby services. The likelihood somebody will donate to support the campus gallery?

This is tricky territory.  Publicly available information has been repurposed in the fundraising world for a very long time. House sale prices, used by homeowners as a gauge to price their own home, have been used by fundraisers as a component of wealth assessment. Reporting of shareholdings and income of senior executives in publicly traded companies, meant to inform shareholders, has similarly helped fundraisers estimate donor capacity.

To borrow another phrase: donor relationships proceed at the speed of trust. Trust is the critical component in building long term, mutually satisfactory relationships between donors and charities. Charities must be wary about risking that trust relationship, even if the risk is only by association with companies which, and I will repeat the reference: “rank the lowest in trust overall”.

Trust is based at least in part on the transparency of communications. The Canadian Marketing Association recently published the Guide on Transparency for Consumers2. They recommend developing ‘privacy labels’, similar to nutrition labels on food packaging, and a tool by which consumers can easily evaluate the pros and cons of a product.

A recent Globe and Mail article3 covered the usage of custom-audience targeting ads in the Canadian federal election. Email addresses collected via a variety of means, including petitions (“Save Our Hospital”) are uploaded to the Facebook ad machine to generate campaign ads, unbeknownst to individuals. In the view of a University of Ottawa Law Professor Dr. Teresa Scassa:

“Even if people sign a petition or otherwise give their e-mail address to a political party, they still have a right to control their personal information.”

I remember the days when charities did not want to proactively seek consent from donors to send electronic communications, because donors were reminded that they could say no. Then a shift occurred and the expectation was that consent should be sought. Build a solid argument for consent in the first place and rely on the notion the request will enhance a trusting relationship.

So, a radical suggestion: Charities should proactively develop privacy labels which succinctly explain what will happen to all the donor’s personal data and how the charity will steward that data. Provide a rationale about why analyzing donor’s data histories – anonymously – is an excellent way for the charity to discover new donors who share a passion for the charity’s mission.

Happily, there is a long history of charities stewarding the money and the charitable intent of donors. Personal data has value too. Charities should make protecting donor’s personal data the new stewardship.


  1. “Majority of Canadians want government to regulate social media, poll says”, Tony Wong, Toronto Star, Sept. 25, 2019
  2. Canadian Marketing Association Guide: Transparency for Consumers,
  3. “Federal parties uploading voters’ e-mail addresses to Facebook to show them targeted ads”, Tom Cardoso and Bill Curry, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 27, 2019.