Nonprofit Newswire | Hospital Fund-Raisers Join Doctors In Checking Patients’ Vital Signs

May 16, 2010; Source: Wall Street Journal | The next time you stay in a nonprofit hospital, your vital signs aren’t the only thing that might be undergoing a scan. According to the Wall Street Journal, some hospitals routinely check the assets of patients to see which might be good prospects to hit up for donations. The practice of taking a closer peek at who’s who isn’t limited to hospitals. Rather, thanks to a combination of improvements in technology and drops in costs, charities have many more ways to find out everything about you. As the newspaper notes, charities can “survey your salary history, scan your LinkedIn connections or use satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool. If it’s really on the ball, the charity can even get an email alert when your stock holdings double.”

While the availability of donor research tools are no secret, certainly not to the fund-raising community, charities don’t go out of their way to advertise their data mining abilities. Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute for Philanthropy, says charities keep these practices to themselves because it “creeps a lot of people out.”

Privacy and comfort issues aside, some are troubled by another practice of hospitals. By knowing who their most well-heeled or biggest donor prospects are, medical institutions can single these individuals out for preferential treatment. For example, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, allows donors and volunteers priority for appointments with specialists. San Diego’s Sharp HealthCare provides major donors with a card that has pager numbers for staffers. Among those who worry about currying favors with wealthy patients is Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He says that donors who bypass waiting lists are likely to find it hard to resist a funding solicitation during treatment and recovery.—Bruce Trachtenberg

  • Beth Gazley

    This story is an overly sensationalist misrepresentation of the original story. The WSJ article mentions TWO hospital chains that mine patient data and offers a more balanced description of why and when such practices occur. You might have performed a public service by attempting to determine how prevalent this practice is and how donors can protect themselves, but instead you took the low road and edited your version of the story to emphasize the sleazier possibilities of this FR practice. I expect more from NPQ.

  • Bruce Trachtenberg

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I thought it would be helpful to point out that the newspaper’s article was actually a condensed version of a larger piece by the same author appearing in SmartMoney. That article points out that growing numbers of hospitals are becoming quite adept in more aggressive fund-raising tactics. Here is an excerpt from that article, along with the link to the full piece, I certainly agree that the more donors know, the more they can protect themselves. And as a first step, it’s important for them to be aware of the practices outlined in the Journal and SmartMoney articles.

    After Med School, Fundraising Training

    At the hospital of the university of Pennsylvania, many doctors wear pins that read ask me about my research. It

  • Baltimore Development Researcher

    Let me assure you that any responsible hospital of any size has a comprehensive HIPAA policy in place. It has been made clear through extensive study and legal consultation what is not only legal but ethical. I know of whole departments that are dedicated to HIPAA compliance. In the circumstance I am aware of, ONLY demographic data is used for screenings of patients who have not specifically authorized being contacted for fundraising purposes. If the patient has specifically signed a authorization which states they are allowing to be contacted for fundraising purposes, and have their patient VISIT information for that purpose, then that information is used as well. If they deny or will not sign they are not screened AT ALL.

    On another note, no prospect researcher I know is interested in the size of a swimming pool. And since LinkedIn is self-reported information and mostly used by a younger set it’s hardly useful.

  • Baltimore Development Researcher

    Anne Kadet’s recent article about research in philanthropic organizations (Smart Money: Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You? (May 16, 2010)) misrepresents the scope and purpose of donor research, and as a result misleads Journal readers about its nature and use.

    Like so many, we share a deep concern for and sensitivity to personal privacy and identity security. That’s why in addition to complying with all legal requirements, including legislation such as FERPA and HIPAA, professional researchers also adhere to thoughtful ethical guidelines about how information should be gathered and used. A deep-seated concern for individual privacy is also why we and our organizations are fundamentally committed to maintaining the confidentiality of personal data that our donors have shared with us.

    The nonprofits we work for aspire to be as effectively managed as for-profit organizations, using technology, market research, and smart business skills to flourish when resources are constrained. Research and analytics help charities use staff, volunteer time, and marketing resources as carefully and effectively as possible. Information we gather and use is obtained from publicly available sources–sources accessible to anyone reading this article. Fundraising researchers can no more be considered ‘spying’ on donors than the Journal can be considered ‘spying’ when it analyzes an SEC document or reports on a public court filing.

    We encourage those who would like to learn more about the profession, our work to serve the public good, and our ethical commitment, to visit the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) at

    Deborah L. Mueller
    APRA President

    Robert D. Scott
    APRA President-elect