The key challenge for the Etherington review

It has to address the position of the Institute of Fundraising as both trade association and steward of the Code of Fundraising Practice, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

One of the urgent questions thrown up by the recent media exposés of the methods used by telephone fundraising agencies was whether charities or those working on their behalf were within their rights to call donors or supporters – people, in other words, who had already given to the charities or had an existing relationship with them – if those donors or supporters were also registered with the Telephone Preference Service, which people join if they do not want to receive marketing calls.

The answer has now been confirmed by the Information Commissioner’s Office: charities are breaching the rules if they call TPS-registered donors or supporters unless they have received specific confirmation from the people concerned that they do not want their registration with the TPS to prevent the charities from calling them. The Institute of Fundraising, with commendable speed, has therefore amended the Code of Fundraising Practice to reflect this ruling.

It has simultaneously made clear, however, that it is unhappy with the position. Its account of the change was accompanied by a warning that it will have a severe impact on income, threaten the viability of some organisations and "unduly restrict the ability of charities to maintain relationships with their supporters". It wants further discussions with the ICO.

This is a further illustration of how the IoF is compromised in its stewardship of the code. It is first and foremost a membership body – a reasonably effective one – focused primarily on advancing the interests of its members as fundraisers. Any restrictions on fundraising go against the grain, therefore, and tend to be implemented reluctantly. This is why the code has usually erred on the side of permissiveness rather than caution: a good example of this is the clause – now under review by the IoF – that says fundraisers should not put potential donors under pressure, but adds that "reasonable persuasion" is permitted. Reasonableness is a notoriously flexible concept.

It is also worth noting that the IoF chose not to act when the Fundraising Standards Board recommended in its interim report in June that the code should be amended to make it clear that the TPS took precedence: this is consistent with the often prickly IoF responses in the past to recommendations from the FRSB. The main difference between that recent FRSB recommendation and the latest edict from the ICO is, of course, that the ICO pointed out that those who break the rules potentially face large fines.

This latest episode serves to remind us of the key task facing Sir Stuart Etherington and the trio of peers helping him to complete his review of the self-regulation of fundraising by the end of next month. The IoF moved in June to put more non-fundraisers on the standards committee that sets the code, including an independent chair, three lay members, a representative of a consumer group, a legal representative and the chief executive of the FRSB. The new composition will therefore be eight fundraisers, six non-fundraisers and the independent chair.

This is clearly a significant step towards greater credibility, but the review will have to decide if it is enough. Etherington said at this year’s NCVO conference that passing responsibility for the code to another body would create "a clear and comprehensible division between regulator and champion". But if it stayed with the IoF, he went on, "they must put clear blue water between the standards committee and the rest of the organisation". On the face of it, the latter condition is not yet being fulfilled.

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