Editorial: One step closer to a credible watchdog

Stephen Cook, editor

When the Prime Minister's strategy unit reported on the voluntary sector three-and-a-half years ago, it said concerns about fundraising might be eroding the otherwise high public confidence in charities.

It cited research suggesting people felt that some methods were intrusive, some content was manipulative and that there were too many appeals - which probably translates as: quite a lot of citizens don't like being stopped on the street, getting phone calls asking for donations when they're bathing their children, or receiving great piles of guilt-inducing direct mail.

The fundraising community persuaded the Government - which didn't seem to take a lot of persuading - that the answer was self-regulation rather than statutory regulation. After many delays, the project took a decisive step forward this week with the appointment of the chair and director of the self-regulation of fundraising scheme. It now has to find itself a name, appoint its ten-strong board, persuade charities to join it and start telling the public about itself.

Will the new unit carry conviction? Unlike the Advertising Standards Authority, it will have authority only over members, not the whole fundraising community. In the words of one critic, this will mean that the cowboys will continue to operate off the radar. It will be independent of the Institute of Fundraising, but will police codes of practice that the institute will continue to control. It will probably charge between £30 and £1,500 for membership, and its main sanctions when complaints are upheld are to be 'naming and shaming' and withdrawal of its planned kitemark.

All this means that it faces some significant challenges in establishing itself as a credible watchdog for the entire fundraising industry. Working in its favour is the plan to include on the board three lay members and two consumer bodies (will one of the latter perhaps be Which?, a recent critic of the nascent scheme?).

It also looks as if the new chair in particular has a wealth of experience in striking the tricky balances that can make the difference between success and failure in the world of self-regulation.

It would have been disproportionate to move straight to statutory regulation, and the best hope for everyone is that the new scheme, working in concert with other transparency initiatives in the sector and legal measures in the Charities Bill, will succeed in tempering the relatively few fundraising practices that alienate people.

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