Brain Tumour Research 'broke fundraising code, but did not intentionally mislead'

A report from the Fundraising Regulator says there is no evidence the charity set out to deceive donors, but it must consider its use of language and how it deals with complaints

The Fundraising Regulator has concluded that the charity Brain Tumour Research breached the fundraising code in some of its communications and in the way it dealt with a complainant.

An investigation of the charity by the regulator, a report of which has been seen by Third Sector, found that it did not intentionally mislead donors but should have been more careful about how it explained its work.

The regulator received a complaint about the Milton Keynes-based charity in July last year from two people whose spouses had died from brain tumours.

The complainants said they believed that the charity had made "numerous false statements on its website" to gain "money by deception from traumatised, vulnerable bereaved family members of brain tumour patients" and it had not applied that money in the way it said it would.

According to the regulator’s report, the complainants argued that statements on the charity’s website and social media pages, which included describing the charity as "dedicated to granting 100 per cent of its funds to continuous and sustainable scientific research into brain tumours", were deceptive because the charity’s accounts showed that it had spent 46 per cent of its income directly on research, while the rest went on staff costs, fundraising and campaigning.

The charity had an income of £3.6m in the year to 30 June 2017 and an overall expenditure of £3.5m, records on the Charity Commission website show.

In response to the complaint, the charity’s director of fundraising told the complainants that the reference to available funds "must be taken in context", the report says.

But the complainants told the regulator they were dissatisfied with the response because it did not explain how donors were expected to be aware of the context and not take the statements at face value.

In its conclusions, the regulator acknowledges that campaigning and fundraising would increase the profile of the illness and, in turn, increase research funding, so the charity’s spending was in line with its objects.

"We have found no evidence to suggest that the charity set out to intentionally deceive donors or that the funds raised by the charity were not ultimately going towards its stated charitable objectives," the report says, adding it did not consider that the charity had claimed donations would be used solely for research into brain tumours.

"However, we did find that the charity should have taken greater care to ensure that all messages to potential donors provided a clear and factually correct context regarding how donations are used."

The charity’s website said that, in order to sustain research at its four centres of excellence, it needed "to continue to provide £1m a year in funds per centre", although this statement has since been removed, the report says.

The report says the regulator agreed with the complainants that the statement suggested it was already providing £1m in funding to each centre, which was not the case.

Again, the report says, the regulator said it did not believe the charity had set out to deliberately deceive donors, but it should have taken more care with the wording and had therefore breached the code’s requirements that fundraising communications should not be likely to mislead.

The charity had also breached the requirements to be open in dealing with complaints, the report says, because its response had not been helpful, did not address all of the concerns raised and could be read as "dismissive".

The report says the charity needs to learn from complaint and consider its use of language and handling of complaints in the future.

It also recommends that the charity make its annual report available on its website, rather than directing them to the Charity Commission website, which it has now done.

Robin Meltzer, the charity’s director of fundraising, said: "We are delighted that the regulator found that there was no intention to mislead donors and note that some of our historic messaging about which charitable projects are being funded was unintentionally ambiguous, so we have already taken steps to rectify this."

He told Third Sector he was sorry if his response to the complainant had seemed dismissive.

One of the complainants, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was pleased the regulator had agreed that some of the charity’s actions had breached the code, but was disappointed by the conclusion that it had not intended to mislead anyone.

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