Cathy Pharoah: Bad practice in fundraising

The problem is not so much law-breaking as inconsiderate or bad behaviour in an area where it's hard to make meaningful rules, writes our columnist

Cathy Pharoah says the sector must listen to donors' experiences
Cathy Pharoah says the sector must listen to donors' experiences

The Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke recently claimed on a BBC Radio Five Live investigative programme that aggressive fundraising tactics were "toxic" and raised money in ways that were damaging for charities.

The producer of the programme later said it had received more texts and emails about fundraising behaviour than about any other subject it had investigated. And an nfpSynergy survey recently found that more than half the respondents were "very annoyed" by telephone fundraising.

Several measures have been taken to address bad practice in face-to-face fundraising: the Institute of Fundraising has published a code of practice, the Fundraising Standards Board has set out a clear complaints procedure, as has the Charity Commission, and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association is responsible for enforcing new rules about chugging. But public concern remains and Lord Hodgson, who supports self-regulation, went so far as to suggest that persistent breach of fundraising regulations should lead to the loss of charitable status.

But the problem is not relatively infrequent law-breaking, but apparently widespread inconsiderate or bad behaviour in an area where it's hard to make meaningful rules. In the US it seems to be okay to ask and okay to say no - but the British have a reputation for reserve and find it difficult to turn fundraisers down. And the latter feel they can't raise the billions of pounds needed by charities each year without treading on some toes, and see the challenge as to keep improving their practices. This is right, but is it sufficient?

We know little about what the public expects. Surveys often ask what type of communication a donor prefers, but rarely ask how many solicitations a week by different communication channels they are receiving, how multiple 'asks' affect them and about the key coping strategies they develop. One very committed donor told me recently she was "just getting harder". The evidence shows giving has stayed much the same in the past decade, and Sports Relief last week actually raised its highest-ever amount on the night. But giving, although it is being maintained, is not growing overall. There is no room for complacency about the evidence of public feeling.

The FRSB suggests most serious complaints can be traced to only 2 per cent of charities, but it's likely that only a minority of donors will find their way to the FRSB, let alone work out which regulatory or professional body is most appropriate for them to approach. And there is a danger that the problems will get worse as charities increasingly turn to giving by the public to make up for shortfalls in statutory funding, competition increases and more pressure is put on fundraisers. Donor relationships need to be respected in practice, not just in name. Getting donor feedback should be made easy, and should lie at the heart of fundraising practice, while charities guilty of bad practice should be outed by the sector.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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