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February 11, 2005


United Farm Workers, Morons +

Nonprofit direct marketers are living a nightmare. A number of direct mail solicitations went out to potential donors that were addressed like this: "Herbert Kaiser, Jewish." Some of them even included those free personalized address labels with the same religious identification on them. The organizations that sent out these mail pieces are exactly the kind that would sooner torture an enemy combatant than promote stereotyping or profiling, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Drug Policy Alliance. Some other mail recipients had tags like "Catholic" or "Hindu" after their names.

Turns out the tainted names originally came from United Farm Workers, who apparently had asked a list broker they hired to add demographic information about donors to their address records. Anyone who has worked in marketing knows that a lot of market research information and potential donor screening is based on making assumptions, like that someone is Jewish based on their last name. Two of the people who reported receiving mail designating them as Jewish are not, in fact, Jewish.

As once private information becomes more and more accessible, easier to manipulate, and available to anyone willing to pay for it, it's hardly a surprise that organizations start segmenting and targeting their customers or donors. Even the ACLU. But when this typically invisible process gets printed right on an address label, it sure looks ugly. A Stanford Law professor commenting about the enormous income nonprofit groups make from renting their donor lists says, "If you talk to people doing marketing for nonprofits, you hear them saying that this is all publicly available information that is being passed around, so what's the problem? The problem is that what's publicly available has changed dramatically because of technology, and it can be easily manipulated to produce unforeseen outcomes, some of which can be terrible."

The ACLU is telling people who call them to ask why their assumed religious affiliation was printed on a solicitation, "We do not collect or store religious information on our members." But the fact that they buy their name lists from a company that does store this kind of information, and sells its valuable segmented lists at a premium, makes them complicit in this kind of privacy breach.

Comments from the Official List Broker of Amy's Robot (via Emily):
What happened in this case is, the UFW farmed out the job to a large, well-known list broker in California, Triplex, who left the coding in the file. The broker was at fault, and they knew better. It’s really complete stupidity on their part, to not have two people checking the list, but many people who are employed to do data entry just don’t notice or don’t care, and mistakes like this really end up hurting all the charitable people who rent lists. But even through non-profits make such a huge amount of money by selling their lists, it’s not all profit. Many people may stop giving you money, or drop out of your organization if their name is used too often. For example, I subscribe to The Nation, and was furious when they sold my name to the Communist Party of America. It's particularly bad when you rent lists to politicians, because the letter the politician sends for approval can be completely different from what they end up sending to your list. Organizations that are very cautious will do the mailing themselves, rather than give out their own list. This way, they still make a profit without releasing any confidential information.

categories: Business, Religion
posted by amy at 12:23 PM | #

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