The Fundraising Standards Board has upheld a complaint that a telephone fundraiser working for the agency GoGen on behalf of the Stroke Association took advantage of an elderly woman with dementia by encouraging her to sign up for a direct debit despite clear signs that she was confused.
In an adjudication ruling made on 10 September and published today, the FRSB found that the call to the elderly woman breached the Institute of Fundraising’s Code of Fundraising Practice.
The FRSB said the fundraiser who recruited the donor should have noticed that she was vulnerable – the woman in question had offered details of her postcode when asked for her bank account sort code – and that the fundraiser’s supervisor, who appeared to be consulted during the call, should have recommended that the call be terminated.
The complainant – the call recipient’s son – first contacted the Stroke Association in March to share his concerns that a direct debit had been set up in his mother’s name.
The Stroke Association responded by contacting the data supplier that had passed the woman’s phone number to GoGen to request that she did not receive any further calls.
The complainant then emailed GoGen and was initially told that the agency had listened to the call and concluded that it was not inappropriate because it was not clear that the recipient had dementia. The complainant then asked for a recording of the call, which GoGen said it would provide within a week.
The complainant contacted the FRSB in May after not receiving the recording within the agreed timeframe because of confusion between the agency and the charity as to who was handling the complaint.
Colin Lloyd, chair of the FRSB, said in a statement: "It can be difficult to identify vulnerable individuals at the other end of the telephone, but in this case there were some clear indicators that should have raised alarm bells and persuaded the fundraiser to terminate the request for funds." He said the guidance currently being developed by the IoF on communicating with vulnerable people would be a crucial step in helping to equip fundraisers to act appropriately.
Giuseppe Iantosca, company director at GoGen, told Third Sector that the call to the complainant’s mother was made by a fundraiser who had been employed by the agency for a month and had since failed their probationary period.
"GoGen are in full agreement with the decision made to uphold a complaint made against one of our fundraising calls," he said. "We deeply regret any distress caused to the complainant."
Iantosca said that the agency had been working with its charity clients since before the complaint was made to improve its practices relating to vulnerable contacts. He said that new procedures were in place so that, if a donor expressed any confusion, fundraisers would be expected to follow a special script that required the donor to verbally confirm what they believed they had agreed to.
If they could not do this, he said, GoGen would end the call without taking the donor’s details and instead contact the individual by post.
Iantosca said that the lack of guidance in the sector surrounding the issue of dealing with and identifying vulnerable supporters sometimes resulted in too much pressure being put on fundraisers and supervisors to rely on their judgement rather than protocol in these types of situation.
Jim Swindells, director of fundraising at the Stroke Association, said in a statement: "We are very sorry for the distress caused to this individual and their family, and are disappointed that they did not receive the standard of supporter care that we strive for. We have been working with GoGen to review its working procedures and provide additional ongoing training for their staff.
"The Stroke Association has taken this incident extremely seriously; we have put immediate measures in place to ensure better communication will help prevent a similar incident from happening again. We have also been working more closely with GoGen to improve its approach when communicating with vulnerable adults."
The FRSB plans to carry out occasional spot checks on GoGen’s future fundraising calls to ensure that the new processes are being adhered to. The agency will submit a progress report to the regulator before its December board meeting.
The agency came under criticism last month in a Daily Mirror investigation that claimed that charities including Oxfam, the British Red Cross and Save the Children were ceding up to 60 per cent of estimated future donations to the company. The Mirror article, which made reference to Iantosca’s £1.1m house in north London, was contradicted by Oxfam, which said it "painted a misleading picture" about the charity’s fundraising costs.
Ceri Edwards, director of policy and communications at the IoF, said in a statement: "This adjudication considers some very important issues for fundraisers on communicating appropriately with people in vulnerable circumstances. The IoF has committed to produce further guidance to help fundraisers to understand how to best approach and fundraise in these types of situations. We hope to launch this guidance later on this year."