Ever since the Institute of Fundraising introduced its code of practice on direct mail 18 months ago, a question has been hanging in the air: what about fundraising organisations that are members neither of the institute nor of the Fundraising Standards Board, which judges complaints against the institute's codes?
These codes do not have statutory force, and no direct sanctions are available against non-members that disregard them.
In recent weeks, however, the institute has started to address this question. It invited its members to send in examples of mail they felt did not conform. Among these it found 22 cases of what it considered poor practice, and it wrote to the charities concerned, drawing the code to their attention and asking them to change.
If they fail to respond, the institute will complain to the FRSB, which takes us into uncharted waters: the FRSB has decided it will consider complaints against non-members, but it has no sanctions against them except moral pressure.
For our feature on pages 14 and 15 this week, we chose three examples of direct mail and asked the institute for its view. They appear to break the code, it said.
We put this to the charities concerned, and their responses indicate the challenge the institute faces. One argued that the code was not being infringed; but the others said, in essence, that the end justifies the means - their methods get results.
There's the rub: some will contend that conforming to the code will stunt the growth of their donor base and reduce income for needy beneficiaries.
But the institute should hold its nerve. Some direct mail is obviously designed to exploit people's gullibility and credulity and to play on their sense of guilt with enclosures of irrelevant gifts and coins.
It might sometimes turn a faster buck, but it is unethical and brings the wider cause of charity into disrepute. Good, ethical direct mail can be just as effective, and the pursuit of high standards should continue.