Opt-in will be 'a calamity for causes and donors', says Ken Burnett

In a blog, the fundraising consultant says the Information Commissioner's draft guidance on the General Data Protection Regulation could destroy donor fundraising in some charities

Ken Burnett
Ken Burnett

Opt-in will be an "unnecessary, unhelpful calamity for causes and donors", the fundraising consultant Ken Burnett has warned.

In a blog on 101Fundraising.com Burnett was reacting to the draft guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office on consent under the General Data Protection Regulation.

The ICO guidance on the new, more stringent GDPR legislation, due to come into force in May 2018, says that "all consent must be opt-in consent – there is no such thing as ‘opt-out consent’".

In the blog, Burnett warned that if the ICO and the Fundraising Regulator were to pursue this interpretation of the GDPR, donor fundraising in some organisations could be destroyed. He argued that consent was a "red herring" and donors would be just as satisfied with an effective system that allowed them to opt out of contact quickly and easily.

He said he hoped his blog would be a starting point that "stimulates additional concerted and united opposition from all in our sector to the unnecessary, unhelpful calamity for causes and donors that will be opt in".

The blog said the logic of opt-in quickly fell apart when applied to real-world conditions because people gave in to inertia and, when confronted with the need for action, would opt-in to fewer charities than they would willingly support.

Burnett argued that many people would happily continue to support charities even if they were not currently donating but would donate again in the future if prompted. If these people could not be contacted, he said, charities’ fundraising models would be faced with a higher attrition rate than they could cope with.

"Some charities have estimated that, if obliged to go the opt-in route, they will lose 50 to 85 per cent of their donors," he said.

Despite his concerns, Burnett said, he believed the Information Commissioner and the Fundraising Regulator were open and well-intentioned in their attitude to fundraising.

He called on the ICO and the regulator to revisit the language in their guidance and give equal weight to the idea of "legitimate interest", a provision of the proposal that would allow organisations to contact people who had not given express, opt-in consent, under some circumstances.

"By so firmly favouring opt-in, the ICO will inevitably encourage charities to take the opt-in route, which might have massive unforeseen consequences and could destroy donor-based fundraising for many organisations," he said. This, he added, would lead instead to many more scattergun, mass-marketing approaches and greatly reduced income for charities and their beneficiaries.

"The only factor that seems to be driving the UK’s voluntary sector into the tragedy of opt-in is that continuous donor opt-out does not satisfy a lawyer’s definition of consent," he said.

Rather than focusing on consent, Burnett said, the regulators might have been better to have focused on what practice would deliver the right donor experience.

He also called for modelling of the likely effects of opt-in on charities and for donors to be canvassed on their views, rather than "making an arbitrary definition of consent the be-all and end-all".

He said: "Charities should be given time and encouragement to set up a donor-focused opt-out system (such as continuous donor choice or similar) and show how it works over time with different groups of donors. This is a real, viable and legal alternative and should be described as such. If it is not, that would seem to be a serious infringement of charities’ ability to trade."

If you’re interested in fundraising, you can’t miss Third Sector’s Annual Fundraising Conference on 23 and 24 May. Click here for more information and how to book

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