Former IoF director calls for telephone fundraising review in critical TV report

Stephen Lee says it is 'inconceivable' that charities are unaware of the conduct of their fundraising agencies, after a Channel 4's Dispatches programme alleges questionable practices

Telephone fundraising
Telephone fundraising

A former director of the Institute of Fundraising has called for an urgent review of telephone fundraising after a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, due to be shown tonight, found that fundraising agencies used questionable practices to target vulnerable people.

Undercover reporters from the programme spent time working for the telephone fundraising companies NTT Fundraising and Pell & Bales. They report that during their time at NTT a team leader told staff fundraising for Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity to list a woman who said she was caring for a terminally ill daughter and did not want to talk about it as a "soft refusal", meaning that she would be called again by the agency.

Another NTT supervisor, the programme says, advised a member of staff not to remove from a database a customer who was suffering from depression, because they said being depressed wasn't a "get out of jail free card".

At Pell & Bales, a manager on a campaign for the sight-loss charity RNIB is reported to have told recruits they should pretend they had children to feed if anyone asked why they were not unpaid volunteers. At both agencies, staff were reported to have been given charity scripts in which potential givers were only to be told that staff were being paid after donors had made a decision to donate.

The programme also interviewed members of the public who were unhappy with telephone fundraising, including a daughter who was concerned that call centres hired by GOSH took advantage of her "confused" elderly father to encourage him to increase his direct-debit donations, and an 82-year-old lady who hid her telephone in order to avoid frequent calls from fundraisers.

Stephen Lee, professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School and a former director of the IoF, said the IoF and Fundraising Standards Board should conduct a review of fundraising agencies following an undercover investigation by the programme. "It’s inconceivable that a director of fundraising or the fundraiser responsible in the charity can’t have some understanding of what’s going on in an agency with which they have a contract," he said. "That’s actually the most worrying element."

Regarding the timing of the agencies’ solicitation statement, he said: "There are absolute guidelines about when the declaration has to be made. The Cabinet Office very clearly indicated that it must be made before the gift is offered. If that's not happening, it's the fault of the agency and the organisation, and the fundraiser in the organisation who is allowing that to be the case."

A spokeswoman for Pell & Bales said in a statement: "It is important to note that the Charities Act does not specify where in the call the solicitation statement should be made, and to suggest otherwise is incorrect. We believe, along with charities and other suppliers, that the statement is most effectively and clearly delivered towards the end of the telephone call when the supporter still has the option not to make the donation. We train all staff in the FRSB’s Fundraising Promise. If it is established that a member of staff has not upheld this, then the incident will lead to appropriate disciplinary action."

A spokeswoman for NTT Fundraising said in a statement: "As a company, we are so proud of what we do and were mortified to see apparent weaknesses highlighted in this report. We have already started an investigation into the material presented and will ensure that we improve any areas found to be lacking."

A spokesman for GOSH said in a statement: "We were shocked and deeply distressed to hear of the evidence of unacceptable behaviour and ways of working presented in this report and we would like to apologise to anyone affected. We are incredibly disappointed and, as soon as we became aware of the report, we stopped all fundraising calls with NTT. With NTT’s full cooperation, we have launched a thorough investigation."

A spokeswoman for the RNIB said in a statement: "Our fundraising activity fully meets the very high standards we set ourselves to ensure openness, clarity and respect. We are in every way observing legal requirements as well as best practice guidelines set out by the Institute of Fundraising".

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the IoF, said in a statement: "It is of the utmost importance to all charities, and the wider public, that fundraising is conducted in a manner that is legal, open, honest and respectful. The relationship between a donor and charities is absolutely crucial and charities do their utmost to ensure that this is protected. Although the number of complaints about telephone fundraising did rise last year, the average complaint rate stayed very low at less than 1 per cent. That tells us that, across the board, fundraising is happening to a very high standard and, proportionally, generating very few complaints."

Telephone fundraising attracted the second-highest number of fundraising complaints last year, according to the FRSB, increasing from 6,379 last year to 8,019 – a 26 per cent rise. The tone or content of the call itself was the most common cause for complaint, closely followed by a dislike of the fundraising method.

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, said it would be contacting the relevant organisations to discuss the matters raised by the programme and  consider whether further invetigation or action was required.

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