Fundraising Standards Board rejects complaint about RSPB web page

The fundraising regulator rules that the conservation charity did not mislead potential donors about the extent of problems in Abernethy Forest in Scotland

The RSPB’s Keep Abernethy Special fundraising web page
The RSPB’s Keep Abernethy Special fundraising web page

The Fundraising Standards Board has rejected a complaint that the RSPB made "false, misleading and exaggerated" claims on a fundraising page of its website about the condition of a forest.

In a ruling published today, the FRSB says that the charity did not breach the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice, which says that fundraising communications ought not to mislead by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration or omission.

The ruling says the FRSB board, which considered the complaint at the third and final stage of its complaints process, unanimously agreed that the RSPB’s Keep Abernethy Special fundraising web page used "language appropriate within the context of the ‘call to action’ nature of fundraising" and did not mislead potential donors about the extent of the problems in Abernethy Forest in Scotland.

But the FRSB noted that the RSPB could have been more conciliatory and detailed in some of its responses to help reassure the complainant that their concerns had been taken seriously.

The complainant first raised concerns with the charity in August 2013 after reading an article in the Sunday Herald newspaper about the RSPB’s plans to plant trees in and around the Old Caledonian Forest on its property in Abernethy.

This person said the RSPB made false claims on their online fundraising page about the condition of the forest and the charity’s actions in it. 

The RSPB responded that its plans were subject to a full environmental impact assessment, a public consultation and comprehensive scrutiny by statutory conservation authorities, including Scottish Natural Heritage, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Forestry Commission Scotland, and that none of the statements on its fundraising page were in breach of the IoF code.

The complainant then tweeted pictures of pine regeneration in Abernethy to the RSPB, which responded by saying the regeneration captured in the images was because of the effects of the charity’s work.

An email exchange ensued between the complainant and George Campbell, the RSPB’s regional director for north Scotland, during which the RSPB stated that the Scottish government had supported its work in the area and invited the complainant to read through the EIA document summarising its project plans.

The complainant first contacted the FRSB last November after a final email from the RSPB said it would not be changing its position regarding its adherence to the IOF code.

"The board felt the RSPB had done pretty much everything: it had commissioned a full impact assessment, it had consulted widely and had discharged its responsibilities well," said Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB. "It was quite a technical complaint and it wasn’t for the board to comment on whether the work the RSPB was doing was right or wrong. What was important was whether RSPB had done the right thing in its use of language."

A spokeswoman for the RSPB said: "I imagine there is going to be some internal reflection on what happened. We’re very pleased with the outcome and that they found unanimously in our favour."

The FRSB noted that as a general principle charities should aim to answer all reasonable questions about their work.

Susannah Birkwood

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