Donating your data: charities embracing web technologies to fuel new donation drive

Cancer Research UK logoSince 2007, charitable donations across the globe have been on the decline. According to the most recent UK Giving report published by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), the estimated total amount donated to charity by adults in 2011/12 was £9.3 billion. Compared to 2010/11, this is a decrease of £2.3 billion in real terms, after adjusting for inflation.

Small donations by individuals make up the lion’s share of the total. In fact, 72% of donations were under £25. CAF speaks about this specifically in its World Giving Index 2012, recommending that civil society organisations “understand the different ways that people give at different stages in their life and tailor engagement with them accordingly”.

It should not come as a surprise that these organisations look for digital ways to “tailor engagement”. But among the UK’s top charities, the online tracking strategies differ by a notable margin – and public perception of these practices works to further sour the charitable spirit of the average Briton.

graph briton

Unique tracking tools found on UK charity websites.
Source: Ghostery panel data from Q4, 2012.

Among adopters of behavioural tracking technologies, Cancer Research UK (pictured) and the British portal for Oxfam led the way, employing 26 and 18 tracking technologies respectively. Interestingly, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross adopted far fewer in the UK (six for and four for than their American sites, which were the leading sites among US charities.

Every site uses the web-wide leader Google Analytics, and six of the 12 sites adopted social tools from Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Cancer Research UK adds to the big three in a big way, adopting one-click sharing technology from five additional social networks. Interestingly, both the British Heart Foundation and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children employ no automated social tools, though NSPCC does provide links to its presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Another difference surfaces among advertising related scripts – the leading sites employ tools from companies such as Tribal Fusion, AppNexus, Google’s Doubleclick and Yahoo’s Right Media. This indicates a desire to measure ad traffic from elsewhere on the web, so these organisations are trying to reach users as they browse and hopefully put them in a charitable mood.

But can it backfire? According to a recent Toluna study, nearly two thirds (59%) of web users were aware that online tracking occurred, but only 27% overall knew it took place on websites for charity organisations. Three-quarters (75%) of those surveyed said that the use of behavioural targeting would alter their opinion of a charity, 88% of whom said that it would be a negative change.

However, as Mark Hallums, Toluna’s Director of Technology, EU and APAC, adds: “A further 45% of users said it would depend how their data was handled as to whether their opinion would be affected either positively or adversely.” Transparent disclosure of data collection is an obvious first step to winning the trust of these users, but Toluna’s survey respondents remained wary. The panel was split on how disclosures would alter their opinion – 22% said they would feel more positive toward a charity, while 22% said they would feel more negative.

Still, it would seem advantageous for charities to leverage their long-established goodwill to explain how online targeting helps their cause. But an examination of their current practices indicates there is a long way to go in that endeavour. Each site in our study seemed compliant with UK rules to disclose cookie policies and each spells out the protections for personal information (such as credit card data) that is collected when a user makes a donation or purchase. But none disclose their use of third-party social or advertising tools or point users to an easy way to opt-out of that tracking.

No one should be discouraged from finding a few extra pounds for social good, particularly in times when anything extra is hard to come by, but UK web users should be aware that charity organisations are often as interested in their web activity as commercial businesses. Similarly, these organisations should understand that even with the noblest intentions for data collection and use, websites should not ignore the issues of transparency and data security.

Without careful management of this activity, charities may succeed in using data only to force consumers to keep their hands in their pockets.

Andy Kahl is Director of Data Analysis at Evidon.