Charities have missed a trick with the way they work with fundraising agencies, according to Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
Speaking on a panel at the Institute of Fundraising’s trustees and fundraising conference in London yesterday, Etherington, who last year led a government-commissioned review into the self-regulation of fundraising, said charities could have used agencies to ask people for different kinds of support rather than just money, such as volunteering or signing up to their campaigns.
He said that during his review last summer, some agencies observed that the charities they worked with were only interested in using them to raise money.
"These people are supporters of you and you need to see the people who support your charity in the round," he said. Having more sophisticated customer relationship management systems could help charities target people in different ways, he said.
Etherington also said that he did not believe that an accreditation system for fundraising agencies would be enough to protect the reputations of the charities that used them.
Dominic Will, managing director of Home Fundraising, recently called for an independently audited accreditation system to be set up which would require approved agencies to have specific policies in place.
"I’m for accreditation but you cannot say that’s enough," Etherington said. "You cannot abdicate responsibility. When these agencies call people up, they do not say, 'I’m from GoGen, can I have a fiver?', they say they’re speaking on behalf of your charity.
"In effect, they are carrying your reputation when the donor picks up the phone."
He said charity trustees should look at benchmark data – which he urged the IoF to develop – considering the levels of complaints generated by different agencies and by different forms of fundraising.
He also said he had continuing concerns around charities’ practices in the area of data protection. "I know the Charity Commission is trying and working hard on this and the Fundraising Regulator and Information Commissioner’s Office are too but there has to be clarity between these three regulatory bodies. It’s crucial that professionals and trustees understand what the reputational issues are; what are 'must do's', what are 'should do' and what are 'nice to do's' in relation to data.
"I still think it is the most difficult area that is out there and I don’t think it is yet resolved."
The panel also heard from Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the Charity Commission, who said that some of the regulator’s "trickiest" cases had involved fundraising agencies and not just ones which had faced media scrutiny over the past year.
She urged charities to ensure they had at least one trustee on their board who was not "in love with your organisation" and said it was good if relations were not too harmonious because critical questions were important to good governance. "You need a bit of bite in the boardroom," she said.