Joe Saxton: No cold calling - a decisive moment for fundraising self-regulation

New guidance is likely to say that fundraisers should not knock at homes if the sticker says 'no cold callers, including fundraisers', but that stance could corrode public trust in charities

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

The world of fundraising self-regulation has a key decision to make. How should it respond to the lack of clarity in the Code of Fundraising Practice on whether fundraisers should knock on a door that has a "no cold calling" sticker on it?

For many, myself included, the answer is simple. Fundraisers should not knock on a door that says "no cold calling", just as they shouldn’t cold-call a phone number that has signed up to the Telephone Preference Service or mail a household that has said "no cold mail". Those with a sticker might be elderly or have poor mobility, young children or vicious dogs. "No cold calling" might not imply a view one way or the other about those who call, and might just indicate that answering an unwanted doorstep call is simply a hassle.

For the leadership of the fundraising community, life is more complicated. Recently I listened to two leading fundraisers tell us how "complicated" it was, how a working party has been formed and so on. Rather than make a clear and bold decision to respect the public’s wishes, fundraising self-regulation is fudging it. My understanding is that the new guidance is likely to be that fundraisers should not knock if the sticker says "no cold callers, including fundraisers".

The fundraisers’ argument is that "no cold calling" doesn’t mean fundraisers, but somebody else. The media and politicians are always creating a fuss about successful fundraising, they say. It used to be telephone, then street and now door-to-door. Doorstep fundraising, so the argument goes, is a hapless victim of a sticker intended for others – a cuddly dolphin caught in the nets meant for sharks.

However, the publicly available research is pretty clear (from a recent Future Foundation report). Charities make up 51 per cent of the doorstep calls, according to a public survey, with the next highest category – home improvements – at just 20 per cent. So when people say "no cold calls", the research indicates the probability that they are thinking of charities. Of course, they might love charities knocking at their door. However, my guess is that all research will lead to the same conclusion. Charities are a very significant portion of doorstep calling and the majority of the public think that "no cold calling" should apply to fundraisers.

The drive behind the fudging and hand-wringing by the fundraising community is not difficult to understand. It’s getting harder and harder to recruit new supporters and doorstep fundraising is one of the great success stories of recent years. Every "no cold calling" household would be another potential supporter lost and I have no doubt that fundraisers can point to households that have signed up despite having a sticker.

Just as many charities argue that we need to have sustainable economic growth and sustainable development, we also need sustainable fundraising. Today’s fundraisers shouldn’t, through their techniques and approaches, make it harder for tomorrow’s fundraisers.

This is where self-regulation comes in. The purpose of any regulation is clear – it stops people doing things they would otherwise want to do. The energy companies are now prohibited from doorstep selling. The Advertising Standards Authority stops people from doing adverts that sell through deception or false claims. If regulation does not inhibit anything, it’s not worth much, unless there is no need for the regulation in the first place.

The problem is that the body that makes the rules for self-regulation, the Institute of Fundraising, is also the representative body for fundraisers. The people tasked with stopping fundraisers doing what they want to do to raise more money are… fundraisers. This is a massive conflict of interest that the institute has never resolved. A key point is that there are no donors or representatives of the public on the committee that crafts the regulations.

This is why the decision on "no cold calling" is so important. It is a decision that will test the mettle of the self-regulatory system. If we want fundraising to be sustainable, we have to listen to donors and the public. We cannot allow practices to continue that corrode trust and confidence in charities to the detriment of today’s public and tomorrow’s fundraisers.

Joe Saxton is the co-founder of nfpSynergy, a specialist charity research consultancy

This article was first published on the Third Sector blog

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