Dawn Varley: Everyone in your charity must understand the fundraising code

Don't allow compliance with it to become a pointless tick-box exercise

Dawn Varley
Dawn Varley

I don’t get invited to many parties these days. I don’t know if it’s my age, the scarcity of friends in my vicinity or perhaps my love of compliance, regulation and just plain common sense, which people don’t expect to make for scintillating conversation. My tendency to say what I think, or not say what others expect me to think, doesn’t help either. I can’t see anything changing anytime soon, so here goes on my latest bugbear: the sector’s failure to stick to its own rules and regulations because, in the main, we pay little attention to them.

I’ve written before about the importance of making compliance a living, breathing thing, and not allowing it to be a pointless tick-box exercise. I came across another great example of this recently, when I was reading about the rebrand of a well-known charity. The PR from the charity itself was fine, explaining what had been done and why. The comment from the agency not so much: even if the folks at the charity’s HQ weren’t in a position to veto the statement, it should have ruffled some feathers.

Why? Because it didn’t comply with the sentiment of a key part of the Code
of Fundraising Practice. Yet because the quote was probably approved by the marketing department and went nowhere near the fundraising function, they were almost certainly oblivious to it, so nobody knew better than to rubber-stamp it through.

The code, under the opening section on "Key Principles and Behaviours", says
"fundraisers MUST NOT [its emphasis] denigrate other individuals or organisations". We’re all in this together and want the world to be a better place, so no good comes of talking down other people, organisations, or heaven forbid, the whole sector.

So I was gobsmacked when I saw the following: "[Creative agency X’s] approach was to strike out against some of the negative connotations associated with the language and tactics of the charity sector, which often leans into a world of shock tactics, euphemistic language, well-worn tropes and overly sentimental language". Leaving aside the repeated use of the word "language" in one sentence, I find that whole statement offensive and down-right rude. It misunderstands and belittles the messaging challenge we face every day to get the attention of the people we need to support our causes, and tries to be big and clever for the sake of it. It shouldn’t have got past a first draft internally, and I can only hope it wasn’t approved by the client.

The problem here, and in many, many organisations, is that the "Registered with the Fundraising Regulator" badge of pride, often displayed on websites, magazines, emails, appeals and so on, doesn’t stand for much unless the code is understood and applied – by the whole organisation, not just the fundraising team.

Think about your organisation. When was the last time you, your fundraisers, your team, your trustees read the code? I’d put money on most people not having an immediate answer to that. Do you audit how your organisation does against the code, setting out section by section what it says you should do against what you actually do, and then trying to close the gap?

I’ve been working with and among fundraising teams for many years and I’ve known only one that does an annual audit of exactly that. It’s a hard but brilliant thing to do, and I commend the process to you. Once you get it right within your fundraising function, you need to check that the wider organisation has an appropriate awareness, understanding of and compliance with the code. Yes, it’s the Code of Fundraising Practice, but the whole organisation wants its fundraising – and, indeed, its whole modus operandi – to be legal, open, honest and respectful. I’m happy to debate that at the next party I see you at.

Dawn Varley is a fundraising consultant

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