Editorial: What kind of messages does this fundraising adjudication send out?

Last November, the Fundraising Standards Board published the results of a survey of 2,000 people that showed widespread dislike of the practice by charities of putting gifts in direct mail appeals.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Only 16 per cent thought it was acceptable, and 93 per cent thought the money spent on such gifts might be better spent on the cause. There followed a fierce debate on our letters page and website, with charities arguing that what the public says in surveys is often different from what it does, and defending the use of incentives because they increase response rates.

Last week, the board published its first full adjudication of a complaint about fundraising. As chance would have it, this came from someone complaining about having received 13 pens in direct mail packs from Cancer Research UK over a period of two years. Pens have come to symbolise the whole subject of incentive gifts, so the board's deliberations and decision on this complaint are bound to carry an extra significance. The decision reads: "Whilst accepting that the complainant had grounds for being annoyed, the receipt of this number of mailings... did not amount to unreasonable nuisance or disruption, and neither did it indicate that CRUK is not committed to high standards."

The board may have been in some difficulty over this complaint because the Institute of Fundraising has yet to finalise its code of practice on direct marketing, which will be the board's benchmark on this issue, just as the institute's other codes are on other subjects. The research referred to above was partly intended to contribute to the debate about this eagerly awaited code, the contents of which will help to shape the future practices of fundraisers and their public acceptability. In the circumstances, the complaint was considered with reference to the general standards of the fundraising promise, adopted by organisations that sign up to the FRSB. This contains the references to unreasonable nuisance and commitment to high standards that feature in the wording of the decision.

It is clear from the adjudiction that the board's deliberations focused on legalistic debates. There was not sufficient evidence, it says, to show with certainty that all 13 pens had been received within a two-year period: four of them might have been delivered outside that period.

It also says that the claim that the complainant's area had been "aggressively targeted" could not be upheld because it was not possible to establish that others in the area also received pens from CRUK. The charity also challenged the claim that the pens arrived in unaddressed envelopes, saying that some had been addressed.

All this, surely, is to miss the wood for the trees. It is apparently not disputed that the 13 pens were received over a period close to two years. Is that really compatible with high standards by a charity? And does it really not amount to a nuisance?

One of the purposes of the FRSB is to convince the public that the fundraising industry can regulate itself properly. There are two messages this adjudication appears to send: to the fundraisers, it appears to be saying "carry on regardless"; and it seems that the public is being told "we know most of you don't like this sort of thing, but we're not saying anything against it".

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