On the scale of "irritating" to "soul-boiling" telemarketers, university alumni fundraisers aren't the worst. The way that school alumni relations offices decide which former students to contact, however, is a liiittle creepy. Universities are scouring former students' Facebook and LinkedIn profiles to figure out who to hit up for cash, and using targets' interests to make pitches as manipulative and persuasive as possible.
EverTrue, a data analysis company that trawls social media and compiles reports on alumni for universities and prep schools, sucks up information like job changes and 'likes' to figure out who the schools ask for money, and how they should ask them. The New York Times wrote about its surge in popularity:
The company's social donor management program, for instance, can evaluate alumni interactions with a college's Facebook pages to help distinguish those people likely to give to a capital campaign from those more interested in a specific athletic or academic cause. It can also examine profiles of alumni on LinkedIn, a feature that allows fund-raisers to identify people in industries, like finance and technology, or specific companies or executive roles with a historically higher propensity to give.
I worked as a fundraiser as part of my university's work/study program, so I feel for those auto-dial tele-beggars. This will make their lives easier. EverTrue's sleuthing can tell them whether to bring up the new dance rooms to a current Zumba instructor, or tell a Microsoft employee alumnus about the need for better hardware for the computer labs.
And of course nobody forced you to click "like" on your university football team's Facebook page or write "gO SPARtAnS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" as your status update. And it's not illegal to repurpose the information you post online to figure out how to best convince you to give away your money. It also isn't totally surprising — schools have estimated the wealth of their alumni to triage fundraising efforts for years, so bringing social media into the mix is just a more efficient way to profile.
But there's plenty of potential for it to be unsettling. Say you like a post on your school's alumni Facebook page about a bake sale to help raise money for your favourite professor, who has cancer. EverTrue might translate that into a potential weakness for the professor's department. Fundraisers could use your moment of sympathy or melancholy or whatever it was that made you click "like" and bring up your dying professor to coax you into opening your wallet. They will never have to mention that their decision to highlight the school's dire need for new basketball uniforms wasn't just a natural conversational tide but rather a deliberate hook based on the time you wrote "We the intramural hoop KINGS, Layup Boyz forever" on another student's Facebook wall in 2011.
This kind of creepery is common among data brokers who use what you do on social media to make and sell targeted ad profiles to companies. That it is now the domain of non-profit fundraising highlights how cold and calculated fundraising can be. The existence of these programs can serve as a reminder that much of what you do on Facebook and other social media gets churned into a dossier designed for companies to try to take your money, and whether you're looking to buy some gadgets or give back to your Alma Mater, you're pretty much always being played. [New York Times]