A year ago yesterday, the public got the chance to complain to an independent body about charity fundraisers for the first time.
The Fundraising Standards Board was launched with no fanfare and has hardly revolutionised the profession since: its start was delayed, its logo had to change and charities were initially slow to join. But when a modest cake was brought into the organisation's London office to celebrate its first birthday, staff could look back with some satisfaction.
Eight hundred charities have now signed up, and the 35 charities with the largest voluntary incomes have all either joined or pledged to do so. Last month the FRSB published its first adjudication, rejecting a complaint against Cancer Research UK.
Yet its future remains uncertain. The £4m given by the Cabinet Office and the Scottish Government to get self-regulation off the ground expires in two years, and membership fees are generating nowhere near enough to achieve the envisaged self-sufficiency by 2010.
Jon Scourse, chief executive of the FRSB, says he would feel more comfortable with 1,000 members now and 4,000 to 5,000 in the long-term - the amount the Buse Commission, which investigated the prospects for self-regulation, said would be necessary for the scheme to pay for itself. "To secure long-term funding, we will need to build membership substantially over the next two years," says Scourse.
Increasing membership was the priority for year one, but by necessity it remains high on the agenda. The FRSB has so far focused on the biggest charities: of its 800 members, 70 per cent have incomes of more than £1m. "If we want our brand to become known among the general public, one of the quickest and easiest ways is to sign up the largest charities," says Samantha Wilson, the board's marketing manager.
Spreading the word
The FRSB is now targeting what it calls 'medium-large charities' - those with incomes between £2m and £10m - through telemarketing and visits. It hopes umbrella bodies such as Navca will help to spread the word among smaller charities.
Scourse says his initial membership estimates were over-optimistic. "I rather stupidly said we would like to have 500 by October 2006, and that was treated as fact rather than opinion," he says. "I also underestimated the time it takes to sign up. A lot of charities say they have pledged to join, but moving from there to the completed application seems to take an inordinately long time. But if trustees meet only three or four times a year, membership of the FRSB might not be top of their agenda."
Maybe not, but if they don't take it seriously the spectre of government-imposed regulation could return. "Voluntary income in the UK is £10bn," says Scourse. "If you look at comparable businesses with similar income, they all have regulatory bodies. The charity sector is a long way behind."
Membership costs between £30 and £1,800 and commits signatories to upholding the FRSB's fundraising promise and following the Institute of Fundraising's codes of practice.
The more enthusiastic members, such as Guide Dogs (see case study) and Macmillan Cancer Support, have been motivated by membership to review how they handle complaints. But others have been more half-hearted and failed to put the FRSB logo on their websites and fundraising materials, as stipulated in the membership contract. "It would be good to have a little bit more commitment across the board," says Scourse. "We do have some members who have been slow in getting our brand exposure out there."
Complaints are handled in three stages: people are first told to resolve their differences with the relevant charity. If that doesn't work - and the fundraising promise or any of the institute's codes have been broken - the FRSB mediates. If that also doesn't work, FRSB directors adjudicate.
Stage one complaints aren't recorded, but not a single 'escalation complaint' - one that reaches stage two - has been received about face-to-face fundraising. "It has been one of the great surprises," says Scourse. "When we launched, all the national press interest was about face-to-face fundraising. I remember coming back to the office worrying about how we would deal with it. We have had general rants about it, but not a single complaint. The public are more concerned about direct mail."
'Beacon of good practice'
David Lepper, Labour MP for Brighton Pavilion, has gone from critic to supporter. "Between February and November the FRSB made real progress in getting charities signed up," he says. "It is now capable of performing a very important role."
Joe Saxton, chair of the Institute of Fundraising, says the FRSB is "beginning to change the way that fundraisers and the sector think about fundraising and their behaviour" and will eventually change public attitudes.
Others are more cautious. When we approached Cancer Research UK for a comment on the FRSB's progress so far, a spokeswoman said it wasn't something they could help with. Many small charities remain unaware of its existence. Gill Pirt, senior organiser for Home-Start Goole & District, fears the scheme's voluntary nature will do little to tackle the bad boys who don't join up.
Scourse's vision is for the FRSB to become a beacon of good practice that prevents complaints as well as resolving them. "Our thinking has moved on to this being the body that makes the sector raise its game," he says. "If we achieve that, there won't be a long-term need for state regulation."
His comments come in between sips of tea from a mug bearing the old FSB logo, a reminder of the organisation's troubled first year. But with the big beasts coming on board, self-regulation could find its legs in the second year of its life.
The road to self-regulation
September 2002: The call to action Government Strategy Unit report Private Action, Public Benefit recommends fundraising should be regulated
June 2003: Self-regulation explored The Institute of Fundraising establishes Commission into the Future of Self-regulation in Charity Fundraising, chaired by Rodney Buse, to consult on self-regulation
February 2006: Fundraising Standards Board founded Cabinet Office and the Scottish Executive provide £4m for four years. Jon Scourse appointed chief executive
June 2006: Recruitment begins FSB starts to recruit charity members
February 2007: Open for business FSB opens to the public but Brighton Pavilion MP David Lepper questions whether it has enough members to make it viable
May 2007: Major landmark London's Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability becomes the 500th member
June 2007: Logo row The FSB becomes the FRSB after the Federation of Small Businesses complains that the abbreviation infringes its trademark
When Guide Dogs joined the Fundraising Standards Board last year, it saw membership as an opportunity to review the way it handles complaints.
Before then, each department followed its own procedures. Now everyone works to guidelines laid out in the charity's guide Complaining: Your Right To Be Heard.
The eight-page FRSB-endorsed booklet explains how complaints are handled. Concerns can be raised in writing, by phone or email or directly with a local member of staff and are logged by the charity. "This means we can tell the FRSB how many complaints we have had, what categories they are in and what we are doing to improve," says Jenny Cook, director of planning and performance improvement at Guide Dogs.
Complainants are initially encouraged to resolve their differences with local staff. If that doesn't work, a Guide Dogs manager will intervene. If the matter remains unresolved, a director who has not been involved in the case investigates. Finally, people can appeal to an independently chaired trustee appeals panel. If that doesn't work, they are guided to the FRSB.
"It shows that we listen and try to learn," says Cook.