Telephone fundraising - caught between a rock and a hard place?

The arrangement between the British Red Cross and the Information Commissioner over fundraising offers very little to the charity sector as a whole, argues Stephen Lee

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

Telephone fundraising is in crisis.

There can be no doubt that some of the activities engaged in by a small coterie of large national fundraising charities and the specialist telephone fundraising agencies that they employed have done immense damage  to the standing of telephone fundraising.

Most worryingly, the fallout from this abuse has directly impacted on the continued ability of many other charities who have not been found wanting in their telephone fundraising methods, to continue to use the telephone to maintain positive interaction with apparently satisfied supporters in a structured manner.

The net result is that virtually no one is calling and those that are, do so within a confused and ill-defined regulatory environment with little confidence that the actions that they thought were compliant are in fact so.

In response, at the onset of the crisis in the summer of 2015, the office of the Information Commissioner (ICO), having indicated that they would develop clear guidance for charities and their agencies on precisely this point, then reneged on this decision in their written response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee hearings in the autumn of 2015.

The apparent unwillingness on behalf of the ICO and sector trade bodies (most notably the Institute of Fundraising) to clarify the practical steps that any well-meaning telephone fundraising charity or agency might put in place to assure compliance and good practice in a practical manner, has made a bad and confused compliance situation at the summer of 2015, develop apace to a desperate fundraising environment in early 2016.

So, good news then that the British Red Cross, one of the organisations investigated by the ICO as part of its response to the telephone fundraising revelations of 2015, has done a deal and entered into an undertaking with the ICO, clarifying what constitutes acceptable practice for them in telephone fundraising going forward?

Whilst this might well prove a positive PR coup for the British Red Cross (and the content of the agreement certainly looks at face value that it will deliver the organisation a surety and certainty to its own future telephone fundraising activities), what practical help does this action by the ICO offer to the charity fundraising sector as a whole?

The answer is, little or nothing.

Within this undertaking the Red Cross is effectively afforded a 12 month transition period to move toward an opt-in arrangement regarding compliance with the consent requirements of Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulation 21 (PECR). Unlike the rest of the charity sector for whom the matter is not clarified, the Red Cross appears to be able to maintain telephone communications with supporters going forward using means other than opt-in over the next 12 months.

By associating itself with this undertaking, the ICO, a body on the record as stating it cannot provide charity sector wide guidance on this issue, is effectively delivering supportive guidance to just one organisation, whilst the rest of the sector is no further forward in determining how it can proceed in a compliant manner.  This is poor regulatory practice whichever way you want to look at it.

Do all charities wishing to engage in telephone fundraising now enjoy a 12 month transitional relief from opt-in requirements and the demands of section 21 of the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR)?

If so, the ICO must say so publicly and quickly if it is to be seen as a fair and even handed regulator.

Rumour is abroad that further deals or undertakings are currently under negotiation (or have even been concluded) by the ICO and unnamed charities?

If this is so then what will become of those charities and agencies that have not had the benefit of face to face contact with the ICO – no contact, not least because the methods that they have used have never been called into question?  The ICO must itself be seen to be transparent, accountable and even handed in its own actions if it is not to fall into disrepute.

To achieve this the ICO must now publish practical guidance for all charities wishing to demonstrate transitional compliance with regulation 21 of PECR as an urgent requirement. To be equitable, this general guidance will need to be equally sympathetic and supportive to all charities as that contained within the Red Cross undertaking.  Failure to publish such guidance is now simply untenable and its continued absence leaves the many good practice charities languishing between a rock and a hard place.

Stephen Lee is professor of voluntary sector management at the Cass Business School and a former director of the Institute of Fundraising

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