Donor data swapping service Reciprocate closed in June last year

The scheme was used by the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation, both of which were fined by the Information Commissioner's Office for breaking the Data Protection Act

Data sharing: charities broke the law
Data sharing: charities broke the law

The donor data swapping service through which the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation wrongly disclosed hundreds of thousands of personal data records has closed, the company that ran the service has confirmed.

Stuart Huke, marketing director at the list broker Response One, told Third Sector the scheme, which enabled scores of charities to swap lists of donor data over the past 23 years, closed on 1 June.

The closure came six months before the RSPCA and the BHF were fined £25,000 and £18,000 respectively by the Information Commissioner’s Office, partly because they had disclosed large quantities of donor details – including names, addresses, Gift-Aid statuses and the amounts of their last donations – by swapping data through the scheme.

Huke declined to comment on the reasons for the closure and the lawfulness of the scheme under the Data Protection Act.

"As Reciprocate is no longer in operation and hasn’t been for some time, there is nothing additional that we wish to add on this occasion," he said. "Response One continues to support the charity sector and the fantastic work it does for good causes."

Mark Roy, chairman of the data marketing agency the Read Group, which has purchased data from Reciprocate over the years, said it was "inevitable" that charities had drawn back from using the service because of the threat of regulatory action as well as critical coverage by the Daily Mail newspaper.

"Charities are so terrified to do anything around data," he said. "There is lots of data out there without Reciprocate, but if they do anything with it they’ve got to be incredibly cautious."

Roy said the closure of Reciprocate meant charities would raise less money over the coming years, but the scheme was not illegal in any way. He added: "I’m not sure the ICO fully understood what the rules around Reciprocate were."

It is not known how many charities were members of the scheme when it closed, but a statement from Response One in 2013 said it had 60 charity members responsible for more than 30 million records.

This was already a significant drop reduction from the 110 charities that reportedly participated in the scheme in 2003, when direct mail response rates were understood to have been 10 to 15 per cent for participating charities on a regular basis, and sometimes more than 20 per cent.

It was reported that Cancer Research UK pulled out of the scheme in 2010, by which time average response rates for users had reportedly fallen to between 9 and 12 per cent.

The British Red Cross, was among the charities that continued using Reciprocate until more recently. During an investigation of the charity by the ICO in 2015, the regulator expressed concern that the charity was using the scheme to swap data, although the charity said it had stopped sharing data with other charities earlier that year.

Reciprocate was originally founded in 1993 by the data services provider and list broker Occam, which was taken over by the marketing and printing company St Ives in 2010. In 2011, St Ives bought Response One, which ran the Reciprocate programme after that date.

In 2015, Adrian Williams, managing director of the direct marketing agency DM Focus, predicted that the Reciprocate programme would be "wiped off the agenda" by the Institute of Fundraising’s decision that year to ban charities from selling supporters’ data and sharing data without consent from donors that had been made within the previous six months.

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