Prospect Research & Management
BWF Services: Prospect Development and Research

The recent meteoric rise of ChatGPT, a chatbot built by OpenAI, has generated a flurry of posts and articles about the future of machine learning technologies.

The conversation has raised some important ethical questions.

  • How is the information being fed to ChatGPT (including data from interactions with users) sourced, secured, vetted, and credited?
  • How might these platforms extend or amplify current biases?
  • Are tech companies like OpenAI potentially skipping over important ethical considerations in the race to go to market first?

Forward-looking questions like these will be familiar to prospect development professionals who adhere to Apra’s principles of ethics and compliance. The ethical principles and behaviors to which we hold ourselves are paramount to maintaining constituent trust—the linchpin of any organization’s future stability and success.

Data and Technology

A natural starting place for constituent trust is data privacy. Prospect development is uniquely positioned to understand and promote the protection of constituent data. It is not enough just to adhere to HIPAA, FERPA, GDPR, and other privacy regulations. We must also set, follow, and enforce internal policies for ethical data sourcing and sharing both within and outside of the development office.

As new prospect development tools and solutions become available, we have an ethical responsibility to demand transparency about data sourcing and protection and to reject applications that conflict with these standards. However, new technologies are not the only source of ethical concerns in our line of work, there are other pressing, often complex issues we need to consider and address as fundraising practices continue to evolve.

Due Diligence

One such issue is due diligence research, an area inherently rooted in ethics. Accepting gifts from sources that are considered unethical erodes public trust in an institution. Additional ethical questions are also present in the process:

  • What kinds and levels of information are truly relevant to risk mitigation?
  • How do you draw and stick to those boundaries amid institutional pressure to research and report on every possible misdeed, no matter how inconsequential?
  • What is the appropriate role for prospect development in recommending how the organization should accept or decline a gift based on due diligence findings?

Then there are differences in laws from place to place.

  • How do you navigate reporting on a charge or conviction for something that isn’t a crime in your country but is illegal in the prospect’s country?
  • Are you even able to access criminal records outside of your own country, and if not, is it fair to reference criminal records at all if you’re unable to do so consistently?

We also need to be aware of the impact of systemic/structural inequalities on due diligence research. Unequal access to capital based on race, gender, or other protected classes may saddle some populations with more debt and, consequently, the appearance of greater financial risk. Similarly, racist policing tactics and unequal access to legal resources may produce unfair representations of criminality for certain populations compared to others.


This brings us to an important, related area: DEI. Similar to due diligence, we have seen a storm of discussion and activity about this in recent years. DEI is certainly still a work in progress; some organizations have moved forward in meaningful ways, but others have struggled to realize tangible improvements.

There was great work done in the prospect development community with the development of Apra’s DEI Data Guide, but there is much more progress to be made.

  • How should we best account for centuries of discrimination and oppression when rating and assigning prospects, for example?
  • What is our recourse if other offices reject or discourage DEI-related changes in our approaches?
  • How do we build trust with constituents from populations whose data has been misused to their detriment in the past?
Fundraising Trends

This brings us back to constituent trust. Unfortunately, trust in American institutions hit a new low last summer, according to Gallup. This downward trend may be playing out in fundraising as we are seeing overall philanthropic dollars rising while the total number of donors is falling (“dollars up, donors down”). The erosion of base-level philanthropic participation has alarming implications for the future of nonprofits, not least because it has the potential to perpetuate a vicious cycle: donor participation is down, so organizations focus more on major and mega donors to make up the difference, so donor participation goes down further, and so on.

In this light, one may well wonder if today’s hyperfocus on major and principal gift programs is exclusionary by nature. When that focus comes at the expense of annual and mid-level tiers, constituents whose financial resources are not as considerable may be sidelined, imperiling the pipeline of future major gift prospects. There is also a danger that major and mega donors may wield outsized influence over organizations that are increasingly dependent on a small handful of constituents for most of their support.

Moving Forward

These are only a small sample of the kinds of modern ethical questions prospect development professionals must and do grapple with every day. Such complex issues don’t always have clear, neat answers that are easy to apply. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility as fundraisers to pursue ethical, human-centered solutions and approaches in our work now and into the future.

To learn more about how to incorporate and address ethical considerations in your prospect development program, consult the many resources provided by Apra; start a discussion with your fundraising colleagues; or contact Catherine Flaatten, BWF’s associate vice president of prospect development.

*This article’s title was written by ChatGPT.