Stephen Cook: Data-sharing story brings a new round of soul-searching

But hard times for fundraising gives the sector an opportunity to rethink its approach, writes the editor of Third Sector

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Yet again the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Fundraising Standards Board have opened investigations into an aspect of fundraising practice thrust into the spotlight by the Daily Mail. The newspaper this week traced what happened to the data of a man who filled in a lifestyle survey in 1994 and omitted to tick the box (no doubt hidden in the small print) saying he did not want to be contacted. His details were passed on 200 times, the paper reported, and he was contacted 731 times; 88 charities received the information, as did 12 scam firms, which succeeded in tricking him out of £35,000 after he began to suffer from dementia.

The law says that permission for data sharing has to be clear and current, and on the face of it the second of those requirements was not complied with. But if the facts in the story are correct, it seems likely that, in other respects, the charities, list brokers and commercial companies that exchanged or sold the man’s details were compliant. If so, there is a clear case for tightening the regulations.

Most of us have experience of the nightmarish world of data sharing, and most of us have the confidence to ignore irritating, unwanted approaches. Vulnerable people might not have that confidence and suffer as a result. It might be that citizens need more protection in the form of an opt-in system in which the default position is that data must not be shared unless you specifically and clearly request it.

The shame is that charities, which are expected by the public to apply higher ethical standards than commercial businesses, have in so many cases opted to play along with all the tricks of the data-sharing industry and the marketing overkill that results from it. They have played a numbers game, churning the data without sufficient regard for the individuals represented by it, and following the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Surely they should be playing a relationship game, nurturing and developing their supporters and keeping them to themselves rather than yielding them up to the risk of merciless pestering by other organisations.

There is a sense, after all, in which passing on data is self-defeating – why share your donors, your best asset, with other charities? If your supporters give to those other charities, doesn’t it mean they will potentially give less to yours? But no doubt the calculations have been made and the conclusion reached that a sufficiently significant amount of income is derived from bought or swapped data. In today’s hard-nosed fundraising world, it wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t earning. And if it earns, it can’t be ignored.

The thinking does, however, seem to be changing. One of the charities involved in the Mail story, the PDSA, says it stopped data sharing two years ago. One of the mega-charities is known to have been having qualms about it recently and is likely to stop. And the Institute of Fundraising is currently reviewing a recommendation from the Fundraising Standards Board that organisations that share data must make it clear to donors from the outset that their personal information might be shared.

Times are already hard for fundraising and its reputation, and this extra source of concern only makes them harder. But there is also an opportunity for developing different ways of doing things, and the signs are that there is a certain amount of soul-searching going on and that this opportunity will be taken – not least because changes are on the way to the structure of self-regulation of fundraising.

Stephen Cook is the editor of Third Sector

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