While sitting on the lawn at a recent Cape Cod Baseball League game, I overheard a woman behind me talking to another fan about her job as a fund raiser at a private high school in Boston. Asked whether she knew a particular local business owner, she replied, "Oh, I know him. He's good for a $10,000 donation every year."
Lists of donors to many not-for-profit organizations are regularly published, and there's no reason to assume that the donor in question wanted to remain anonymous. Even so, was my fellow fan in fair territory when discussing donors by name - and amounts - in a public setting? Or was she wrong to be so free with the information? Or is the real culprit here the fellow fan - me - for inadvertently listening in on what was presumably meant to be a private conversation, regardless of where it took place?
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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing (http://www.jeffreyseglin.com/, a Web log focused on ethical issues.
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My work with lovers of open-source software shapes this framing, but I would argue it's up to the speaker to understand and respect the wishes of the donor.
Of course there's the option for next time this happens: ask them. If it's okay to discuss at a Cape League game in such close quarters, it's okay to interject. Either you strike up an interesting conversation or, if indeed they consider it private, they learn to watch what they say.
The "inadvertent listener" cannot be wrong in this scenario. The viewer can turn his/her head or close his/her eyes and thus avoid seeing something s/he does not wish to see.
But the sense of hearing cannot be turned off. That's why those of us who do not go through life with constant conversations by cell phone or cell phone earpiece are at the mercy of listening to those who do go through life in that manner. And why those of us who sit in public places are (too often) "treated" to comments and conversations that should be private. But it's the speaker who makes the decision to make private information public!
And the speaker at the ball game was wrong to bring up the name(s) of donors in a public setting, where whatever she said was public information. Poor judgment on her behalf.......she didn't have a 'cone of silence' she could bring down for what should have been a private conversation.
As someone who has had experience with this sort of thing at several colleges and universities, I think the public discussion of the donor in the manner reported was inappropriate.
That said, the matter is a bit complicated. According to Jeff's account, the fundraiser did not bring up the donor's name. It was given by her friend. A more appropriate response would have been, "Yes, I know him well, and he is a generous supporter of our school," rather than "He's good for a $10,000 donation every year." The latter is flippant and presumptuous and would certainly not sit well with the donor.
So it's not the public discussion of a donor per se that's wrong; it's the tone and specificity.
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