Donors and Data: Where do we draw the line?

Donor sentiment toward using their data for nonprofit uses

Executive Summary

Organizations of all shapes and sizes are waking up to the power of information to drive business decisions. And as digital communications and transactions have become the norm, consumers and donors have become comfortable sharing information about themselves, their interests, and their financial status. Data has become a focal point for every industry, including nonprofits. 

But how do we as nonprofits use the data that we are entrusted with? What do donors want from nonprofits when it comes to the use of their data? Are they concerned about data privacy? What about personalization? 

Questions like these have become part of our ongoing conversations, and we decided to go straight to the source and ask donors about their thoughts and concerns. 

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The Nonprofit Alliance and RKD Group have teamed up to provide the nonprofit industry with much-needed insights about the data landscape in the nonprofit world. Together, we commissioned donor sentiment research in late August 2020 to better understand what donors think about the use of their data.


Overall Findings

Donors’ attitudes about how data is used vary greatly.  Donors individually, and even as an aggregate group, have mixed opinions about sharing their data, but ultimately care about the details of how the data will be used and what impact the use will have on their personal, direct experience. The donor sentiment research suggests that the degree of approval or disapproval for any particular use of data varies based on the type of use, the age of the donor, and the level of their giving.

*We looked at donor sentiment across four generations: Baby Boomer, Older Generation X, Younger Generation X and Millennials. Generation X was split based on distinct patterns that have emerged in their values and behavior through additional research.

Donors approve of some uses of data and oppose others:

  • Donors are most supportive of uses that streamline the amount and type of information they receive. 
  • Donors are most opposed to selling and bartering their data. 

When it comes to using data to personalize their experience, donors have mixed reactions. 

  • The younger generations are more comfortable with use of their data, while the older generations are more opposed. 
  • Donors who give more are more comfortable with use of their data, while donors who give smaller amounts are more strongly opposed. 

Younger generations have been raised with technology and the commonplace sharing of data. If the current trends continue, it appears that more data uses will become more acceptable overall as these donors age. 

At the same time, when considering the results through the lens of level of donation, it appears that how nonprofits communicate about data use and how they steward the data could impact a donor’s willingness to have data used in a particular way. 

These are important things to consider as we move forward as nonprofits, gathering data and using it, to serve both our donors and our missions.

Let’s look at what we learned!

*It is worth noting that in many of the patterns related to the age of the donors (which for analysis purposes were divided into 4 generational groupings), there was one consistent outlier, pattern-breaking generation: Young Gen Xers. They consistently approved more strongly of using data, and had less opposition, than the other generations. We found that the patterns were strong enough among the other 3 generations to still highlight them. That it was consistently this one generation that strayed from the pattern would require more research to replicate (or not) and to understand. 

Donors Trust Nonprofit Organizations

Overall concern about data breaches is very high among donors to nonprofits. 93% of respondents are either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ concerned about breaches in general.


Yet, concern about data breaches in nonprofits donors have supported (rather than in general), while still high, drops a significant 10 percentage points overall. 


This difference between ‘concern in general’ and ‘concern with a donor’s nonprofits’ indicates a degree of trust in nonprofits and nonprofits’ ability to manage data securely.  It may also reflect the amount or level of personal information an individual shares with a nonprofit, where a data breach in a nonprofit may present less risk than a breach of other types of businesses that process and store more financial, health, and other sensitive data points.

Donors Approve Some Uses of Data

Donors approve most strongly of uses of data that result in them receiving less information and not getting the same information again. (For example, using data to segment an email list to deliver fewer emails.)

The Boomer Generation (the oldest group surveyed) most vehemently support this use (57%) of not repeating info, of even withholding communication from them.


Donors also approve of using their data for aggregated uses that don’t impact a donor’s direct individual experience (i.e., improving the website by expanding upon areas viewed often and dropping seldom-viewed sections). While the verdict leaned toward “approving,” we see that half of donors, not being able to feel the impact of a particular use directly or individually, don’t feel strongly either way for a “behind the scenes” use. This could be an indicator of desensitization to this issue as donors and all internet users regularly accept cookie notifications as a routine part of going to any website for the first time.


Donors Strongly Oppose Nonprofits Selling Their Data

Donors strongly opposed bartering or selling their information to other nonprofits.

Whether the information is being sold to organizations “with a similar mission” or to organizations “hoping to reach people like you,” more than half of donors are totally against selling or bartering.



While the opposition to bartering or selling data remained high across age groups and donation levels, opposition got stronger (and support weakened) as the generations got older. The younger generations, who grew up with technology and sharing their data online, have a higher comfort level with sharing their data.

Similarly, while overall still remaining high, the opposition to selling or bartering data lessened (and support strengthened) as the size of donations grew. This could indicate that larger donors, who likely have greater wealth and giving capacity, are more comfortable sharing their data, or better understand the role that sharing data plays in supporting nonprofits.

Alternatively, it could mean that, in the current management of data by nonprofits, large donors', data is shared less than smaller donors, and so their experience of having their data shared is currently less annoying/worrisome/aggravating to them.

Uses with Mixed Results, Mixed Conclusions

When it comes to using data to customize/personalize the donor’s experience, the results are a mixed bag.

Similar patterns emerged in these “mixed bag/fence-sitting/ambivalent” views as we saw in those “strongly opposed” to uses. The older generations more strongly oppose the uses, while younger generations are more open, and even favor, using data to personalize their experience.

Again, we see small donors are most vehemently against data uses and least supportive. Large donors are more supportive and less opposed.




What would explain smaller donors’ opposition to using their data and larger donors more openness to the use of their data? 

It could be that larger donors, who likely have greater wealth and giving capacity, are more comfortable sharing their data, more savvy about philanthropy, or better understand the role that sharing data plays in supporting nonprofits. 

Alternatively, this pattern could indicate that in the current reality, large donors’ experience of having their data used/shared is very different from that of small donors'. 

How do we talk to our donors about the collection and use of their data, and what story do they hear/understand?

Perhaps larger donors crave - or are already receiving - a more personalized experience from the nonprofits they support. Larger donors, for example, may be pulled out of the direct-response program as they work with a major gift officer. Thus, they see fewer touchpoints in email, direct mail, etc. Larger donors appreciate the personalized experience, while smaller donors might not have experienced it yet.



About the research

The data in this report comes from an online survey of 1,050 U.S. donors, co-commissioned by RKD Group and The Nonprofit Alliance. This study was conducted in August 2020 by McQueen Mackin & Associates, a market research firm that is dedicated to helping nonprofit organizations do more good and make a greater impact. The results were limited to donors who gave at least $100 in 2019. The survey was controlled for sex (50% men, 50% women) and age (25% each Millennials, Young Generation X, Older Generation X, and Baby Boomers). Additional controls were put in place to ensure that inaccurate and repeat responses were excluded. Donors were asked a series of questions about their sentiments toward specific use of their data by nonprofit organizations.


About The Nonprofit Alliance

The Nonprofit Alliance (TNPA) exists to foster the development and growth of nonprofit organizations and to protect the vital services they provide, as well as the donors, members, partners and volunteers who support them. Members represent a diverse landscape of causes and include industry experts who help nonprofits in their public outreach, fundraising and resource development. For more information, visit


About RKD Group

RKD Group is a leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations. RKD Group's multichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible. For additional information, visit


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