Back in November the Fundraising Regulator announced that "we will name all organisations we investigate, whether the complaint is upheld or not". The new policy will apply to "all investigations into complaints received on or after 1 March 2019".
I know some fundraisers have worried about the impact of these changes: that we can’t trust the press not to run wild with them, that it’s not fair to be named as part of an investigation of a complaint if the charity hasn’t done anything wrong, that donors or the public will assume "there’s no smoke without fire".
I have sympathy with them. Lots in the charity and fundraising sector feel burned by media portrayals and newspaper coverage over the past few years (some of it fair, some wilfully not), so it is not surprising that there is a bit of a feeling of trepidation about pouring more fuel on the fire by releasing the names of charities that are subject to investigation.
It’s worth highlighting here is that it isn’t every single complaint that will be reported and the subjects named, but every investigation that comes from a complaint, where the complaint couldn’t be resolved by the charity to the satisfaction of the complainant.
However, is a concern about how parts of the media might use (or misuse) the published decisions enough of a reason not to do it? I’m not so sure. Being open, transparent and held up for external scrutiny should be the default where it is possible, as long as it’s done in the right way. It’s not an unusual thing for any regulator to do: the Advertising Standards Authority has for years sent out a weekly email detailing its rulings, naming the organisations, giving summaries of the issues and saying whether complaints were upheld or not. It looks like good regulation, showing that a regulator is fair and effective, and demonstrating to the public and others that it takes its investigations seriously.
I think the Fundraising Regulator has probably got it right on this one. It might feel a bit uncomfortable – especially for the charities named in the first batch – but doing something new or different nearly always will. It was positive that the Fundraising Regulator engaged with the Institute of Fundraising at an early stage, giving time for our Standards Advisory Board to review the proposals and provide thoughts and feedback, and to raise some concerns about the impact of the change. The main issue to arise from these discussions was that the key to getting this right is not the question of whether to publish, but how to do so.
It’s really important that the Fundraising Regulator uses this as an opportunity to promote learning about its regulatory function and process, in a way that raises confidence in its work. It must not be used as a deliberate PR exercise to garner newspaper coverage or as an opportunity to seek media interviews (which I don’t believe is the intention) and should follow a process that reassures those it regulates.
Charities must continue to have the right to see the reports in advance and to feed in their views as part of the investigation before publication. And when investigations are written up, subjective views of what a fundraising charity should be doing should not be brought in, as has happened previously. There has to be a factual assessment of compliance. Where a charity is found not to have breached any rules in an investigation there is an opportunity to report that in a positive way. Rather than just identifying an absence of guilt, it should also recognise and commend a charity that has committed to compliance and good practice. That would go a long way to build trust in the regulatory process and to mitigate any potential negative pick-up by the media.
Publishing the investigations and naming charities means we have to confront a truth that we sometimes prefer to shy away from: that there will, unfortunately, be complaints about fundraising because, however hard we try, we can’t please all the people all the time. Sometimes, completely inadvertently, we get something wrong, and sometimes people will just not like what we do and how we do it, even if all the rules have been followed. We cannot and should not pretend otherwise. All that achieves is to set an artificially high standard that we will never be able to reach.
Where fundraising goes wrong we will fix it, but where we do things right let that also be recognised. This requires good faith on both sides. Charities need to have confidence if they are to be held to public scrutiny and the Fundraising Regulator needs to be trusted to get this right, reporting on the investigations and naming charities in a fair, straightforward and balanced way.
Daniel Fluskey is head of policy and research at the Institute of Fundraising