Self-regulation: Ticking the boxes

The Fundraising Standards Board was set up last year to deal with complaints about fundraising and help give the public confidence when they make donations to charities. Emma Rigby looks at the story so far.

When the Fundraising Standards Board was launched in February, Jon Scourse, its chief executive, announced proudly: "This is a historic moment." For the first time, an independent body was to police fundraising complaints.

With almost 600 members, the board is well established. Scourse likens the tick on its logo to a fundraising equivalent of the Corgi kitemark for gas engineers. "Within five years, we would like to be in the position where a member of the public would look for the reassurance of our tick," he says.

When complaints occur, the board will refer them first to the charity concerned. If it cannot resolve the issue, the board will adjudicate with reference to the Institute of Fundraising's Codes of Fundraising Practice and its own Fundraising Promise. Unresolved complaints might go to the board of directors. If one is upheld, the organisation could be thrown out of the scheme.

The board is mindful of the power it wields and is committed to using its sanctions carefully. So far, it has not made public details of any complaints. Scourse won't discuss the number made or the stage in the adjudication processes they have reached.

Information will be published once complaints have reached critical mass - it would be unfair to put the spotlight on the first offenders, he says. In the meantime, Scourse says the logo and board membership are sufficient to boost public confidence in fundraising.

The board's role goes beyond regulation alone. It is also intended to be an information-sharing organisation and resource hub. "If an issue is highlighted in an adjudication that has an implication for our members, we will share it," says Scourse. Members can also share ideas online and annual reports will give feedback on public concerns, he says.

Already the board's influence has led to improvements in fundraising practice. Cancer Research UK says that membership has prompted it to review its complaints procedures. The charity did not previously differentiate between fundraising and non-fundraising complaints. It now has a complaints coordinator and has made its complaints procedure available on the internet.

"Being a member has helped us to be more co-ordinated," says Claire Wilson, head of supporter services at CRUK. "We can also give supporters the confidence that we are working with a set of fundraising regulations - it makes it clear that we abide by those standards."

Scourse outlines similar benefits for smaller charities, which make up 70 per cent of the board's membership. Many previously lacked the knowledge or resources to establish complaints policies. The board is keen for more to join, so it has teamed up with CSV in Hull, Kent and Fife to try to engage smaller groups. It is also in talks with the Institute of Fundraising and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action.

The board is still developing ideas. Wilson suggests holding quarterly forums and information swapping. But she say it is hard to say how the board will develop until its initial complaint results have been published. "It will be interesting to see how many complaints they get and what stages they reach," she says.

Meanwhile, some charities wonder how the board will help them with other fundraising issues they face. Donors are becoming more demanding and want to know how their money is spent, says Jane Simpson, head of fundraising at UK charity Railway Children, which helps homeless children worldwide. But she says many donors remain unaware that not every penny is spent directly on the causes they support, and that some money must be invested to raise more. She says a lack of transparency can discourage donors.

"A lot of charities play the first-date character, and tell donors only what they want to hear," says Simpson. "It's only through being open and transparent that donors can benefit from a long-term relationship."

Individual donations to Simpson's charity increased by 90 per cent in the past year, after it dedicated an issue of its supporters magazine to discussing investments, budgets and fundraising sources.

Scourse's response is that charities should strive to be open. "Messages that charities convey should be accurate and not exaggerated," he says. "Sometimes, in their enthusiasm to focus on an issue, there is a risk that facts and figures will unwittingly be used in a way that presents a false picture."

CRUK's workshop, 'Ready for Take-off: Managing Membership of the FRSB', takes place today at 9.30am. Jane Simpson's session, 'The Railway Children - Honesty is the Best Policy - How Transparency and Openness Really Work', is tomorrow at 2.45pm.

TIMELINE

2002: The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report, Private Action, Public Benefit, raises the issue of regulation

2003: The Institute of Fundraising sets up a commission on self-regulation, chaired by Rodney Buse

2004: Buse recommends the Charitable Fundraising Standards Board, modelled on the Office of Fair Trading

2005: After months of delays, the Home Office and Scottish Executive provide an £840,600 start-up fund

2006: Scourse appointed, tick logo unveiled. Promise clause barring 'excessively emotional' appeals is dropped

2007: Scheme launches after delay. FSB becomes FRSB to save confusion with Federation of Small Businesses.

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