John Plummer asks some fundraising professionals if they will have to change their ways.
Direct mail has always been a controversial fundraising method, but in recent weeks it has become even more of a hot potato.
First, the Fundraising Standards Board's inaugural annual review in May revealed that direct mail was the method of fundraising that most irked the public. It accounted for almost a third of complaints to the new watchdog - far more than face-to-face fundraising.
Then last month, the Institute of Fundraising published its first code of practice for direct mail. The six-page code bans the use of enclosures "where the sole reason for their inclusion is to motivate a donation through the inducement of financial guilt".
The code addresses another thorny issue - shock tactics - by saying charities "ought to be able to justify the use of images or text that may shock or offend some sections of the public". The code also says the purpose of questionnaires "should be absolutely clear".
All this activity shows that the profession is addressing the problems highlighted in the FRSB's review. "We could not ignore the fact that enclosures attract a significant irritation element," says Megan Pacey, director of policy and campaigns at the Institute of Fundraising.
She says there are particular concerns about charities targeting postcodes heavily populated by elderly and vulnerable people and sending them on gift-induced guilt trips to encourage them to give. Children, she adds, have been upset by stark images used by anti-vivisection charities on direct mail envelopes.
But Pacey maintains that there is not a significant problem with direct mail. "The FRSB review showed it attracts some complaints, but only one escalated into a full investigation," she says.
So is the code much ado about nothing? It is certainly unlikely to trouble most charities unduly. The boundaries it sets are rather fuzzy: few organisations admit to inducing guilt or shocking without good cause, and proving they have done so will be difficult.
But it is difficult to be very prescriptive on something like enclosures. "You could have a list as long as your arm and it still wouldn't be long enough," says Steve O'Connor, UK director of fundraising at Barnardo's. "You have to give people a creative licence and an indication of what might be crossing the line."
He welcomes the code, but says the popularity of direct mail is fading. "It doesn't form a major part of our fundraising," he says. "It was much bigger years ago."
But direct mail remains vital for many charities. WaterAid, which sends eight mail packs a year to 200,000 people, derives half of its income from the method. Angharad McKenzie, individual supporter fundraising manager at the charity, says the code "gives fundraisers something that will help them meet the demands of self-regulation. It is based around honesty, transparency and accountability, which is what we should be working towards."
The British Red Cross expects to generate £1.9m from 180,000 new supporters acquired through direct mail this year. "I believe we are complying with the code," says Liz Willliams, direct mail manager at the charity, which does use incentives. "Direct mail is such a big area of fundraising and there wasn't a code before, so it's a positive step."
Geraldine Cetin, marketing manager for acquisition at the RNLI, which sends out 12 million door drops and recruits about 100,000 supporters through direct mail each year, concurs. "Something does need to be in place to set boundaries on what's acceptable," she says.
"We do not use product enclosures - only stickers to increase brand awareness; and we do not use questionnaires except for legitimate market research. The code does not present us with any challenges."
So it seems the code won't have much effect on most charities from day to day. But maybe it will serve a wider strategic purpose. Third sector minister Phil Hope's recent ominous warning that "many more organisations" needed to join the FRSB was a stark reminder that statutory regulation could yet replace the fledging self-regulatory body.
FRSB members must abide by institute codes, and the new one on direct mail shows the fundraising profession taking action on a matter of significant public concern. Apart from rooting out isolated instances of bad practice, perhaps this will be the code's enduring legacy. L THE REGULATION GAME
How the DM code fits in the jigsaw
The Direct Mail Association and the Advertising Standards Authority already have codes which cover the work of charities. But when the self-regulation of fundraising was set in motion two years ago, the Institute of Fundraising decided the existing codes were not specific enough.
- They didn't cover the question of enclosures, for example, which were becoming more widely used and more controversial. A working party was convened to draft a charity direct mail code, and consultation with the sector lasted for five months.
- The new code was approved by the institute's Standards Committee and lawyers before it was published in May. The six-page document consists of general principles rather than specific examples and has been welcomed by many fundraising organisations.
- The Fundraising Standards Board says the new code gives it more specific parameters for dealing with direct mail complaints. The public should now direct complaints about fundraising to the FRSB and more general advertising complaints to the ASA. There remains, however, potential for crossover.