Charity direct mail: testing out the Institute of Fundraising's code of practice

The institute has begun a drive to improve the standards of direct mail. John Plummer and Stephen Cook report on how three charity mailshots measure up to the rules

World Children's Fund Sudan campaign
World Children's Fund Sudan campaign

The envelope, with its brightly coloured image of Africa, could have been mistaken for an expensive travel brochure when it landed with a thud on the doormat.

Inside was a gaudy "Africa-inspired blanket", a letter addressed to "Dear Friend of the Children" and four pages of emotional narrative.

"Warfare, anarchy, terrorism! What horrors have not fallen down on the heads of the people in Somalia?" it read. "Let's join hands and bring the miracle of love and kindness - of transformation - into these needy lives!"

The mailing is one of three selected by Third Sector to illustrate the continuing debate about standards of charity direct mail. They were received by staff or readers (see case studies below).

The Institute of Fundraising considers they infringe the code of practice on direct mail that it published last year. Complaints to the Fundraising Standards Board are judged against IoF codes.

But the code is binding only on the 5,000 individual and 300 organisational members of the institute and the 1,130 members of the FRSB. None of the charities in the case studies is a member of the FRSB - they are not obliged to follow the code.

The institute is addressing this problem by drawing the code of practice to the attention of non-member organisations it believes are infringing it, and the FRSB is to start considering complaints against non-members.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the institute, says: "The three examples that Third Sector has shown us highlight the need to separate poor, guilt-led and short-term fundraising from those charities that aspire to high-quality, uplifting fundraising that will generate donor support and loyalty today, tomorrow and potentially forever.

"As a sector we have made great strides in driving up standards and we need to work hard to ensure our collective reputation is not tarnished by the relatively few bad examples."

'Decent, Honest and Transparent' - What the code says

The Institute of Fundraising code on direct mail, created 18 months ago, says mail should be decent, honest and transparent.

"Fundraisers ought not to exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge or inexperience of the recipient," it says. A section on shock tactics says that they should be used with care, that shocking images should not be put on outer envelopes and that a warning should be given if contents are shocking.

Enclosures can be very effective when used well, the code says, but "organisations ought to be able to demonstrate that the purpose of the enclosure was to enhance the message and/or the emotional engagement in the cause, and not to generate a donation primarily because of financial guilt or to cause embarrassment. In judging this, emphasis will be given to the perception of the recipient."


The 'Africa-inspired blanket'

World Relief Mission was set up in 2007 by Paul Irwin, a former president of the Humane Society of the United States. His travels in Africa made him want to set up a medical relief charity. It raised £244,000 in 2007/08.

The mailshot

In December 2008, 83,000 people were sent an 'Africa-inspired blanket' with a letter from Irwin "as a reminder that your love and compassion can reach across the continent". The letters described it as a "free gift with no obligation," adding: "Please remember when it is bringing comfort to you that you are helping to bring comfort to a needy family in Africa".

The institute says:

"The letter claims the blanket 'could be the spark that helps light the torch of human kindness in the hearts of your loved ones and friends'. We believe the blanket does not, in the words of the code, 'enhance the message and/or emotional engagement in the cause'; rather, it appears to be an attempt to 'generate a donation primarily because of financial guilt or to cause embarrassment'."

The charity says:

"We believe the blanket mailing was a powerful awareness-raising tool, opening the eyes of the public to the impoverished conditions suffered by many disadvantaged people throughout the world. We therefore feel it was in keeping with the institute's direct mail code of practice (the purpose was to 'enhance the message and/or emotional engagement in the cause') and was industry-compliant."


World Villages for Children was founded in 1964 to help children impoverished by the Korean War. It now raises funds to help Catholic nuns educate street children in the Philippines, Korea, Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil. Based in London, it generated £8.1m in 2006/07.

The mailshot

Envelopes contained two 5p coins and one 2p coin attached to a letter from Sister Michaela saying terrible poverty in Guatemala was forcing her to turn away desperate children such as Dion, whose father was beaten to death in a civil war. She asks for the coins to be returned with £10 because £10.12p is what it costs to feed, care for and educate a child for a week.

The institute says:

"We believe the mailing does not, as the code requires, 'enhance the message and/or emotional engagement in the cause'. Indeed, sending money runs counter to any claim that funds are desperately needed. We believe the 12p is designed to 'generate a donation primarily because of financial guilt or to cause embarrassment'."

The charity says:

World Villages for Children's international development director, Joseph Vita - a member of the institute - says coins are an attention-getter. "They enhance our message as well as donors' emotional engagement with our charity work by drawing attention to the fact that it only takes a small amount of money to help a child," he says. "Many people, once they realise this, are very enthusiastic about helping us. In fact, when we mail coins we are able to raise more money, which means we are able to help more children."


The World Children's Fund was founded in the 1990s by Joseph Lam, who was moved by the suffering he had seen on a visit to Calcutta, India. It has affiliates in 12 countries and raised £3.1m in the UK in 2007/08.

The mailshot

One side of the envelope was covered with a picture of a moribund child. Inside was a letter from Lam about Sudan, another graphic picture and a sewing kit. The letter reads: "The squalor there is indescribable! If you and every one of my close friends send World Children's Fund a gift of £10, £20 or even £30, we will be able to save thousands of children from a certain death."

The institute says:

"The shocking image used on the envelope contravenes section 2.5 of the code. We believe the sewing kit breaches section 3.7 because it does not 'enhance the message and/or emotional engagement in the cause'. The only reference to the sewing kit is: 'Each time you use it, you will be reminded of how much you have helped children like Isaja to survive!' We believe this enclosure is designed to 'generate a donation primarily because of financial guilt or to cause embarrassment', which also contravenes section 3.7."

The charity says:

The fund did not respond to inquiries. Its website refers to graphic mailings and says: "Mr Lam sees so many hungry, dying and abused children that he does get emotional - and he knows that unless we communicate the needs graphically, some people will just not respond." The site says nothing about enclosures.


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