Andy Hillier: The ICO should share more details about its findings

Far from simply trying to move on, the Information Commissioner's Office needs to be clear about the fundraising errors of the past

Andy Hillier
Andy Hillier

There are likely to be some in the sector who will argue that we should simply move on from the fundraising debacle of last year and not seek to determine what exactly went wrong and which rules were flouted.

They will no doubt take issue with Third Sector’s decision to publish the details of the exchanges between the Information Commissioner’s Office and the British Red Cross about the regulator’s investigation into whether the charity breached Telephone Preference Service rules. After all, in February the ICO published a statement saying it had concluded that the Red Cross had complied with the law, although it did offer advice about how the charity’s practices could be improved further. The ICO even praised the Red Cross for seeing the "benefits of not just following the law, but following best practice". 

But such statements offer limited insight to what occurred and do little to take the sector forward.

From the correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Third Sector’s Susannah Birkwood, we have learned that the Red Cross provided no easy way for individuals to opt out of receiving marketing communications, something the ICO described as a "major failing" that required action.

The ICO found fault with the wording the Red Cross used on a face-to-face fundraising form, saying it was "problematic with regard to data collection". It also, among several other concerns, took issue with the Red Cross’s understanding and interpretation of so-called "warm donors", arguing that it was "not recognised in law".

For better or worse, most major charities have adopted industrial fundraising practices, largely outsourcing their telephone and face-to-face fundraising to agencies. With this, of course, come the difficulties of monitoring and ensuring agencies adhere to proper practices.

The problems identified by the ICO will no doubt have afflicted other charities, many of whom perhaps had viewed the Red Cross with its considerable resources and enviable fundraising reputation as the gold standard. Knowing precisely what the ICO considered the Red Cross did wrong, and what it needed to do to put it right, is highly useful to fundraising charities wanting to avoid similar pitfalls.    

The ICO’s investigations into the fundraising practices of charities are not over, of course. The Red Cross was just one of several charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support, the NSPCC and Oxfam, into which the regulator opened investigations last year. These investigations are expected to conclude next month.

For the good of the sector, let's hope that when the ICO publishes these conclusions it shares more of the detail. It is only with openness and honesty that the sector will learn from the errors of the past and move forward from its fundraising woes.

Andy Hillier is editor of Third Sector        

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