Charities have become more ethical in the use of donors' data, says Information Commissioner

Elizabeth Denham says the sector is taking data protection seriously and there has been a 'really good conversation' between charities and regulators on the matter

Elizabeth Denham
Elizabeth Denham

Charities have "moved forward" in implementing ethical practices in the use of donors’ data over the past few years, according to the Information Commissioner. 

Speaking at a conference organised by the law firm Browne Jacobson in central London yesterday, Elizabeth Denham said she believed that, in the past few years, charities had moved towards a data-protection regime that did not just comply with the law, but was also ethical. 

As a result, the voluntary sector was "not a sector the Information Commissioner’s Office was focused on", she added. 

The Information Commissioner’s Office handed out fines totalling £181,000 to 13 charities across six months in 2016 and 2017 after the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday newspapers carried out investigations into fundraising practices involving several major charities. 

"Fast-forward to 2020 and looking out into this audience, I don’t have the absolute evidence but this is not a sector the ICO is focused on," said Denham yesterday, adding that the ICO was looking at online advertising and technology companies.

"But what I see in the charitable sector and what I hear from my colleagues at the Fundraising Regulator and the Charity Commission is that the sector takes data protection seriously, and that you’ve moved forward in putting in place practices that are as much ethical as they are legal to ensure that your donors’ data is accounted for and is used in a fair way."

She said the improvements had been in part because of the "really good conversation" that had taken place between the ICO, the charity sector and charity regulators.

"We started by listening, we started by talking and we got to a place where, after the fines that we issued under the old law, we drew a line under it and we went forward, and we understood each where the other was coming from," she said.

But she also said she wanted "to step back and listen" to charities more and urged charities to listen to their donors when making changes to their data processing, whether it was a root-and-branch overhaul or a complete systems change. 

"I also get that these are really challenging times for charities, and I did see the story in the papers in the summer that the number of people giving to charities regularly is down three years running," she said. "I do get that charities need to be straightforward and ask previous donors if they can provide their support again."

She said she hoped the draft direct marketing code of practice, which the ICO put out to consultation last week, would help to guide charities to work effectively within the law. 

"There’s no better sector that understands human values and sees first-hand the impact of kindness and generosity and listening," she said. 

"I think the sector is perfectly placed to get data protection right, to continue the progress that you’ve demonstrated over the past two to three years, and also in doing so to really maximise the efficiencies and the fundraising that support all of the good work that you do."   

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