Charities are divided over how to interpret the guidance on telephone fundraising given by an Information Commissioner's Office representative earlier this month.
A gathering of fundraisers in London told David Evans, a senior data protection practice manager at the ICO, that they sometimes used agencies to find the phone numbers of supporters for whom they had only a postal address.
They asked if it was all right to phone such supporters, regardless of whether they were registered with the Telephone Preference Service. They estimated that 80 per cent of supporters were registered.
Evans said it would be a technical breach of the regulations, but the ICO would not necessarily investigate unless it received complaints. The same applied to making administrative calls to supporters who had asked not to be contacted, if the calls did not generate complaints.
The Fundraising Standards Board has since contacted the ICO to ask for written confirmation of the guidance, and the Institute of Fundraising has said it is likely to update its code of practice on telephone fundraising.
Elaine Lee, director of consultancy Reynolds Busby Lee and a member of the Direct Marketing Association's telemarketing council, said she was concerned about the implications of Evans's comments.
"When people register on the TPS, they expect it will prevent them from receiving calls from anyone they haven't given their details to," she said. "If these people complain, charities will be seen to be disregarding the law, as well as people's right to privacy. Saying that this is acceptable because they're doing good work will be a very difficult stance to defend.
"Just because the ICO seems to be saying this practice is acceptable, I don't think charities should do it."
But John Brady, head of fundraising at disability charity Sense Scotland, said calling TPS-registered supporters could be acceptable. "If a person is an existing supporter, a charity has a relationship with them," he said. "As long as the caller gives them the chance to end the call, I think it's fine."
He said he was against the practice of making administrative calls to supporters who had asked not to be contacted. "I don't think it's right," he said. "It's not transparent and I'd be uncomfortable trying to justify it."
Evans's guidance reassured fundraisers, but whether the public will be satisfied remains to be seen.