Can our association build a directory that protects member privacy?

Networking among your members is arguably one of the most important benefits your association can offer. However, balancing access to other association members with the members’ right privacy is something many associations struggle with as they consider offering this benefit.

The greatest casualty in the struggle over access versus privacy is often the online association membership directory. That is unfortunate because online versions of the membership directory tend to be more up-to-date and easy-to-use than printed association directories. They also tend to be less expensive to create and maintain over time.

The chief privacy concerns with online directories tend to center around the following:

– It is too easy to copy the information from the screen and drop it into a database (as opposed to a printed directory, which requires re-keying of information).

– It is too easy for members to rapidly send emails to numerous other members by simply clicking on email links, pasting messages and sending emails.

– In associations in which there has not historically been a printed directory due to cost or other constraints, the online version opens up many privacy issues for the first time. In this case, displaying any information may be problematic. A good example of this situation might be found in a fraternity or sorority that has tens of thousands of alumni.

The good news is that there are ways to address each of these concerns, allowing the association to give members the benefit of access and networking:

– To make it difficult to simply copy information from the screen into a database, the association can limit the number of results presented. In the extreme, the association can even turn the information into a graphic on-the-fly before displaying it.

– To make it difficult for members to rapidly fire off emails to other members, the member email addresses do not have to be displayed. Instead, the user would be presented with a message box into which an email message would be typed or pasted. While this won’t keep an energetic person from sending multiple emails, it will allow the association to monitor communication (or at least be able to identify abusers) and turn off access for a member who abuses the email system.

– If providing access to member information is a completely new benefit that could meet broad resistance, it could be restricted in several different ways. One option would be to limit the information to only the chapter in which the member participated (in the fraternity/sorority example). Another option would be to display no information for a member until that has updated his or her settings to allow the system to do so.

Providing members with the means to access and network with other members is a critical benefit for many associations. However, privacy concerns are impeding many associations’ ability to provide this member benefit in an online setting. The good news is that there are many technical innovations that can be used to reduce or completely eliminate the potential for abuse of member information.

Does your association provide member contact information on your web site? How do you balance the needs for privacy versus access?

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