How to Handle Donor Relationships When You Switch Jobs

By Maria Di Mento, Chronicle of Philanthropy

You’ve just started as a major gift officer at a nonprofit, and your first task involves beefing up your new employer’s donor list. Thinking of calling on those donors you had spent years cultivating at your previous nonprofit? Think again.

Bringing donor information from a previous employer to your next job is unethical, says Jason Lee, interim head of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Following Ethical Standards

The association addresses the issue in its Code of Ethical Standards. Standard 18 makes it clear that an organization’s donor information is the property of that nonprofit and should not be taken from one organization to the next.

Although such a move goes against professional fundraising principles, some nonprofits either tacitly or openly expect a fundraiser new to the organization to bring along donor information from a previous employer.

“When a nonprofit hires a major gift officer with the sole purpose of getting that gift officer’s donors, that’s completely unethical for a fundraiser,” says Jeff Schreifels, a fundraising consultant.

Mr. Lee says his association has heard from gift officers who, several weeks into a new job, have been fired for refusing to provide a donor list from a previous employer, even though no such expectation was expressed during job interviews.

“That’s something fundraisers should find out before they take a new job and make sure they’re not expected to bring a donor list,” says Mr. Lee. 

He suggests asking in an interview what the organization expects regarding attracting new donors. Ask the question diplomatically, says Mr. Lee, and you can find out if the organization operates ethically.

If a nonprofit expects you to bring donor information with you, fundraising experts warn, you should think carefully about pursuing the position. It is bad practice and could signal other dishonorable behavior.

“It’s blatantly unethical, and any organization that would do that has no clue what fundraising is all about,” says Mr. Schreifels. “It’s not about money. It’s about developing relationships in the context of the donor wanting to change the world and the organization’s projects and programs that can help them do that.” Christine Graham

Midnight Worries - For many years Christine Graham published a newsletter, Nonprofit Vermont, which was the primary statewide vehicle for fundraising news in Vermont. After the newsletter was joined by so many other wonderful resources for news, jobs, and legal updates, it became an occasional publication. "Midnight Worries" is an editorial by Christine Graham, in the spirit of Nonprofit Vermont.

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