Someone please save us from irritating DRTV ads

The new Fundraising Regulator should work with the Advertising Standards Authority to control the quality of charity adverts on television, writes the professor of voluntary sector management

Last week, being a little bored, I decided to indulge in some afternoon television downtime. Fear of personal humiliation forbids explicit mention of the channel or programme selected, but suffice it to say, I was rather enjoying my televisual access to sun-kissed properties when the adverts delivered a rude awakening, badgering me with a succession of charity direct response TV adverts. All were highly formulaic, each one creatively oh so samey, and by the time the last one had played out, not only was I emotionally exhausted, I was also properly and profoundly irritated.

No surprise then to learn, in the face of the near mortal decline of telephone fundraising and the ongoing disputes regarding direct marketing, that the fundraising "big guns" are turning their attention to DRTV.

Investment in DRTV is up by 20 per cent we are told and while the medium remains expensive, with expert agency guidance and a healthy forward budget, effective donor engagement and with it, positive return on investment are assured.

Now where have I heard that before I wonder? Flick back to the 1990s and the explosion of cold direct mail acquisition campaigns. When that went down the pan, the millennium saw a headlong move into face-to-face recruitment. Door to door followed and with it, high-volume cold telephone acquisition was brought into play. Each had its turn, some offered great potential, but all were effectively rubbished and trashed because organisations (and some individual fundraisers within them) thought only of their needs and not those of donors or the reputation of the sector as a whole.

Some, no doubt, thought that this was very clever fundraising (after all, the majority of the "big boys" simply piled in one after the other, channel by channel) and the more they experienced early success, the more that success fuelled their short term appetites for yet more of the same.

Some clearly considered it intellectually and creatively powerful to engage in ritual saturation of successive fundraising channels – after all, careers were effectively forged from the outcomes, awards were won, agencies prospered, fundraising gurus were established and even deified.

So must it now be the turn of the television to harbour much that has been the worst of contemporary fundraising practice? I hope not, but what I saw on my TV screen last week should be setting alarm bells ringing for all of us.

Some 30 years ago, long before the Ofcoms of this world were brought in, I sat on the committee of charity broadcasting practice that in those days regulated fundraising access to the airwaves. We did, I think, a pretty good job before successive broadcasting acts put us out of business.

Given the proclivity toward past over indulgence I've described among some of the larger fundraising charities and the public irritation that saturation of TV channels with DRTV ads will inevitably deliver, is there a case for our new Fundraising Regulator, working collaboratively perhaps with the Advertising Standards Authority or the Committee of Advertising Practice, to ration and quality control fundraising’s access to the DRTV airwaves?

Clearly the TV companies cannot be expected to do this alone (after all, they have commercial skin in the game) and the intrusive and highly visible impact that DRTV delivers makes it imperative that we think and plan as much from a viewer and sector-wide perspective as we do from a perspective that simply delivers short-term gain for individual organisations.

Avoidance of public nuisance is a well-established prima facie case for restricting or limiting high volume fundraising, and as the fundraising sector begins to recalibrate itself within a revised self-regulatory framework, thinking and acting strategically - ahead of time - to protect the interests of the general public and donors as well as the beneficiaries and charities, might do much to restore confidence in our fundraising methods.

Stephen Lee was director of the Institute of Fundraising for 11 years and is now a professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School

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