Opinion: Regulation for direct mail is a no-brainer

I've been banging on about fundraising direct mail for years, about the tackiness of so much of the creative and how a sector that is generally so politically correct seems in this regard indifferent to either common decency or even the mild rules the commercial world lives by.

Are your hackles rising at my presumption? For just one example, look at Ken Gofton's piece in yesterday's Third Sector Fundraising Daily about charities' widespread use of questionnaires merely as an excuse to ask for donations, and the outrage that most charities actually throw away the information gathered.

Here's another example, which I will address in my session this afternoon ('Irregular Giving - One Year On'). I donate to a charity. More likely than not, it will then abuse me with 10 or 20 mailings over the next few years that do not remotely reflect my interest. It will ignore good manners and the experience of a generation of fundraisers. It does so because I am just one name on a database. It doesn't ask about me or my interests, and is too idle or incompetent to look at my response, or lack of it, to correspondence. So for me, the opportunity to help the Institute of Fundraising establish guidelines in a code of practice on direct mail was too good to miss.

Does charity direct mail need regulation? For years, members of the public have been complaining about junk mail, with journalists leading the fray while wearing their Charles Tyrwhitt shirts, which could have been bought only through direct mail. But now the Government is jumping on the bandwagon with threats to introduce an opt-in, whereby people would have to agree to receive your mail before you can send it. Very tricky. If an opt-in is introduced, you can kiss goodbye to large lumps of income currently generated by direct mail.

So, yes, we have to regulate ourselves or suffer at the tide of public anger that is clearly building. Anger, for instance, at having to go to the post office to collect a parcel that could not fit through your letterbox, only to find a cheap umbrella from a charity. Or the anger of seeing an elderly person who has been sent 12p in coins not knowing what she should do with them. In her day, 12p was 2/6d, and that was a lot of money - it had value.

The code is deliberately quite bland. Its power will come in its implementation as challenges to current practice are judged, by the Fundraising Standards Board, on whether they constitute good practice. I'm hopeful we can get rid of some of this stuff and once again persuade supporters with the power of our arguments about our clients' needs and our charities' solutions to them.

- Stephen Pidgeon is chairman of marketing company Target Direct.

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