Direct marketing: The making of a code of practice

Umbrellas or no umbrellas? David Burrows offers an insider's view on the new code.

Credit: Peter Mac
Credit: Peter Mac

If you are wondering how the Institute of Fundraising's code of practice Direct Mail came about, then here is the personal and highly subjective view of someone who was on the committee debating the first draft.

I volunteered to take part because I work for a direct marketing agency that does a lot of fundraising direct mail. My main reason for getting involved was my concern at the poor reputation of fundraising direct mail in the eyes of some members of the public, journalists and politicians. I was also worried about examples of direct mail I was seeing that might be described as making extreme use of incentives, including gloves, umbrellas and so on. I felt that if this trend continued there could be an 'arms race' of bigger and bigger incentives.

My fear was that these tactics - though they undoubtedly generate increased response - can appear to the public to be profligate. In addition, they often involve incentives or widgets that cannot be recycled, so they contribute to direct mail's reputation as being bad for the environment. My concern remains that if fundraisers continue down this route, it could invite politicians to introduce draconian regulation or simply change all direct mail to an opt-in only basis.

One interesting aspect of sitting on the committee was the range of opinions. We certainly didn't start with a consensus about what the problem was and what the code should do about it. Some members shared my concerns and wanted a strong code that would outlaw practices that might prompt external regulation.

Others felt that public dislike of techniques such as incentives was hugely exaggerated, and said the fact that incentives generated high response rates spoke for itself. Broadly speaking, they argued for a code that would place relatively few limitations on fundraisers beyond a requirement to be honest and use common sense.

There was little consensus over direct mail and the environment. Some argued that all fundraisers had a responsibility to consider the environmental implications of direct mail. Others maintained that if a charity's aims were not environmental, it should not have to incur higher costs by, for example, using recycled paper.

At the heart of these debates was a fundamental question about the role of the fundraiser. Is a fundraiser's job simply to raise as much money as possible, within the law? Or should individual fundraisers sacrifice some short term return on investment to address environmental concerns or ethical issues, or to safeguard the reputation of the sector as a whole?

Even those of us who felt that specific practices should be outlawed found it surprisingly difficult to formulate clear-cut regulations that would make sense in reality. For example, if we said "no coins in packs", would people who wanted to go against the spirit of the code simply start putting postage stamps in packs instead? If we banned coins but allowed pens in packs, would somebody start using high-quality metal pens that cost £1, simply to exploit a loophole?

We toyed with the idea of putting a ceiling on the value of enclosures in packs, but that didn't really work either. How much is too much - 20p, 10p, 5p? What about the fact that a small test pack might cost a lot per item, but a roll-out to millions might cost a fraction of the price? Is a £1 incentive appropriate in a small, bespoke mailing to millionaire supporters that might yield a £10,000 cheque, but wrong in a different context? Is it always wrong? Or should we always leave it up to the individual fundraiser to make a professional judgement - in which case, why bother having a code at all?

Drafting legislation is difficult, which is why we ended up with a code that has much more to say about principles than about specific do's and don'ts. This will probably disappoint a lot of people because almost everyone has a direct mail technique that they love to hate and want to see ruled out. So apologies if you belong to the "I hate pens" lobby - just as turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas, so charity direct mail specialists are unlikely to vote against low-cost techniques that reliably bring the money in.

Having talked about the things we disagreed about, there were an awful lot of things on which we did concur. The main thrust of the code is honesty and common sense. Make sure you can back up the story you are telling, and make sure you don't frequently blanket-mail people who are not responsive. There was little debate about shock tactics. Charities have a right - and arguably a duty - to use such tactics where they are appropriate. The code simply stipulates that they should be used honestly and that we should not use them on outer envelopes, which might be picked up by children.

If I were to generalise, I would say that many of the charities saw the adoption of a strict code as a threat to their ability to raise the maximum amount for their charity. On the other hand, most of the agencies saw not having a strong code as a threat to fundraising direct mail as a whole, and thus to their long-term future. Someone came up with an amusing conspiracy theory: that the reason agencies were arguing for a strict code was to force charities to be more imaginative about direct mail - meaning more fees for agencies. I couldn't decide whether we agencies should be disappointed at the cynicism or flattered by such a willingness to believe we had a cunning plan.

The process took many months and included a period of public consultation. The resulting code may look a bit limp to those who wanted a list of banned items, but I think it contains sound principles. It all contributes to the debate about whether fundraisers should focus purely on return on investment or whether the way the money is raised is as important as the amount. This isn't going to be the end of the debate, but I think it is a good start.

- David Burrows is head of fundraising at marketing agency TDA THE CODE AT A GLANCE

We asked Nick Brooks, head of the not-for-profit team at accountants Kingston Smith and chair of the Institute of Fundraising's Standards Committee, to reassess some controversial direct mail fundraising campaigns from the past

Enclosures such as pens, umbrellas and t-shirts must "enhance the message and/or the emotional engagement to the cause"

- The purpose of enclosures should not be to "generate a donation primarily because of financial guilt or to cause embarrassment"

- Charities must be able to justify content that may offend and be sure they portray the truth. Shocking images on outer envelopes are banned

- The new rules can be downloaded in full at www.institute-of-fundraising.org.uk/bestpractice/thecodes

HOW WOULD PAST CAMPAIGNS COPE UNDER THE CODE?

We asked Nick Brooks, head of the not-for-profit team at accountants Kingston Smith and chair of the Institute of Fundraising's Standards Committee, to reassess some controversial direct mail fundraising campaigns from the past

NSPCC - 'BABY NAMES'

This mail pack from 2006 was actually a list of abused babies. Brooks says:

"The shock tactics could offend; the charity would need to ensure it accurately portrayed the cases of abuse. A warning would need to be placed on the outer envelope.

"The case studies should accurately convey the truth. One assumes the babies listed in the book were real individuals because the last caption says 'in loving memory' and gives a list of names.

"As a general rule for case studies, charities must comply with the Data Protection Act and are likely to need permission from the subjects."

Help the Aged - 'Ophthalmic'

This pack from 1989 included a ribbed plastic strip to look through and see how cataracts could affect vision. Brooks says:

"This enclosure was certainly an 'uplift device', enhancing the message and the emotional engagement, but could not be said to be an attempt to generate a donation because of financial guilt or embarrassment. This particular enclosure would therefore be totally acceptable within the new code.

"The appeal was for a very precise purpose - the treatment and removal of cataracts - and the charity would need to ensure that funds collected by this appeal were used for this purpose."

Amnesty - 'Torture Pen'

This pack from 1995 pictured a dead Guatemalan street child whose eyes had been poked out with a pen. Brooks says:

"Both the picture and the words could shock or offend some sections of the public, so Amnesty would need to ensure it accurately portrayed the truth. Any gratuitous exaggeration or dishonesty would undermine both Amnesty and other organisations. Organisations using shock tactics need to be particularly sensitive in cold acquisition techniques and need to warn on the outer envelope that the contents are shocking.

"Although the pen is a gift, it enhances the message and the emotional engagement and would be considered acceptable under the new code."

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