Analysis: FRSB investigates surge in complaints on email fundraising

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the regulator, says it will ask its members for reasons why people complain about email and doorstep fundraising

Alistair McLean
Alistair McLean

When members of the Fundraising Standards Board fill in their annual returns this year, they will be asked in detail about the reasons people have given for complaints about email and doorstep fundraising.

The move on email has been prompted by a surge in the number of complaints recorded in the FRSB's annual report for 2012, which detailed complaints made in 2011. Email gave rise to 1,773 complaints that year, up 282 per cent on 2010, without a similar increase in the volume of emails sent.

There were 2,877 complaints to charities about doorstep in 2011, which was not a significant increase on the previous year. But the FRSB decided to take a closer look at this area too because the number of complaints it received directly about it increased from 14 in 2011 to 40 last year.

The intention is that information about donors' dislikes can be used by fundraisers to strengthen their relationships with supporters and improve future campaigns. The move is part of a wider drive to discover more about why certain types of fundraising might annoy people.

This year's return will ask the FRSB's 1,450 members to break down the email and doorstep complaints they received in 2012 into categories. These are based on the type of complaints people make directly to the FRSB; the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association also provided feedback for the doorstep categories.

For email, the categories include 'dislike of method', 'data protection', 'tone of appeal' and 'inappropriate language and imagery'. Those for doorstep include 'inappropriate time to knock', 'frequency', 'ignored "no callers" sign' and 'behaviour of fundraiser'.

After the 2012 figures came out, the FRSB went back to charities to ask for more detail about doorstep complaints, using a smaller number of categories of complaint than it will this year. The exercise showed that 45 per cent of complaints related to 'fundraiser conduct'.

For the past three years, the FRSB has asked its members to provide similar details of complaints about direct mail and telephone fundraising, which remain the two most complained-about techniques.

"We will be looking more closely at any area of fundraising that shows a shift in the level of complaints compared with the previous year and any trending that seems to demonstrate a technique is concerning the public," says Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB.

In 2011, direct mail, telephone and doorstep fundraising were the subject of about 70 per cent of the 30,383 complaints. Complaints about email, as well as trebling year-on-year, were seven times higher than in 2009.

From its own research, the FRSB says almost one in four of the complaints it receives directly about email relate to data protection and involve supporters worrying about how the charity got their email address and who they will share it with.

Past analysis of direct mail and telephone fundraising shows that there are two dominant causes for complaint - the number of times people are asked to give and the use of their data. The frequency of mailings and telephone 'asks' attracted 5,340 complaints in 2011, a sixth of the total figure.

Joe Saxton is founder of the research consultancy nfpSynergy, which recently found doorstep and telephone fundraising were the "most annoying" methods of fundraising.

"Asking donors how much they want to hear from them should be compulsory for FRSB members," he says. "We know one of the solutions is to let people be put in control of the mailings they receive."

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