Stephen Cook: Big tests await the Fundraising Regulator

Its decisions on the scope of the Fundraising Preference Service showed its independence but further tests await, says Third Sector's contributing editor

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The case of Olive Cooke, who before her tragic suicide had been receiving hundreds of requests for money from charities, played a strong part in the insistence of the charities minister, Rob Wilson, that the new Fundraising Regulator should create the means for people to opt out at a stroke from all fundraising approaches by all charities.

Ironically, however, it was also the case of Cooke that featured in the eventual decision by the regulator not to implement that proposal by setting up what came to be known as the big red button and to go instead for a little red button that people can use to opt out from selected charities only.

That decision came about partly because the regulator, during its consultation, recognised the argument that Cooke, like many people, was a lifelong donor to her chosen charities and would probably therefore have preferred the Fundraising Preference Service to be selective rather than universal. In that sense, the chosen system could be said to respect her memory and the outlook of many other donors.

It also puts down a marker for the independence of the new regulator. It had no choice but to set up the FPS, which was part of its founding brief, but it decided to implement a version of it that was less draconian than Wilson originally had in mind. He has expressed his disappointment, but says he understands the argument.

This decision about the scope of the FPS, discussed by Lord Grade in his recent interview with Third Sector, has helped to cement a general view in the sector that the new Fundraising Regulator is striking a fair balance between the needs of fundraisers and the protection of the public from excessive pressure.

Grade has given the new outfit oomph and profile, supported by some wise heads with extensive experience in the sector. It is also decently resourced, with three times the staff and nearly five times the income of its predecessor body, the Fundraising Standards Board.

Just as importantly, it has taken control of the Code of Fundraising Practice, previously – and inappropriately – owned by the professional body, the Institute of Fundraising, which hampered the work of the FRSB and, combined with chronic under-resourcing, limited the scope and effectiveness of the previous self-regulatory system.

Three big further tests await the new regulator and will determine whether its creditable and relatively speedy start will be consolidated as a sound and workable system for the future. The first of these is actually implementing the IT-based FPS, a supplier for which has recently been chosen.

The second is the revision of the code, a consultation on which is about to begin. The task here is to re-examine both its basic assumptions and its detailed provisions with a view to making sure that recently exposed bad practice is squeezed out and the public – particularly the vulnerable – are properly respected.

The third is the succession: Grade’s interim chairmanship ends in June and the interim chief executive, Stephen Dunmore, will leave in September. Finding the right people to replace them will be central to the regulator’s continuing credibility and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, concern in the sector has swung away from the Fundraising Regulator and the FPS to the Information Commissioner’s Office – in particular, its recent decision that so-called wealth screening by the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation was not underpinned by appropriate consent from donors.

This has left some charities feeling they can’t win – that they are castigated for a scattergun approach to fundraising, but are told they can’t take a more targeted approach either. Ironically, some wealthy philanthropists are known to have criticised charities for failing to find out more about them before approaching them.

The key will be finding a form of words for consent statements that is less vague than at present and makes clear to donors that the charity wants to screen their details against publicly available sources of information in order to fundraise more effectively and appropriately. The fear is that donors wouldn’t tick such a box.

An attempt to make progress on this subject, where the devil is in the detail, will be made at a conference at the end of February, organised by the ICO and the Charity Commission. This offers a chance for fundraisers to present their concerns and establish what they need to do to satisfy the regulators.

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