Gerald Oppenheim: Charity fundraisers must beware of the risks of subcontracting

As charities returned to face-to-face fundraising after the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a noticeable increase in practices that threaten to bring the sector into disrepute

It’s been a hard year for the charity sector. Across the country and amid challenging economic conditions, charities large and small have battled with rising operating costs, lowered revenues and increased service users’ needs.

In this perfect storm, safe and effective fundraising has never been more important.

The charity sector is adaptable and innovative. Over the course of the pandemic, we saw charities expanding, or building from scratch, entire digital fundraising operations as traditional methods were rendered impossible.

However, as the sector returned to face-to-face fundraising following the pandemic, there has been a noticeable increase in practices that threaten to bring the sector into disrepute and undermine the past eight years of hard work.

Used correctly, door-to-door and on-street fundraising can greatly enhance a charity’s reputation and effectiveness, and the vast majority of professional fundraisers adhere to the Code of Fundraising Practice.

But we have become aware of a number of serious issues relating to the use of subcontracting and sub-subcontracting by fundraising agencies, both through disturbing stories in the media and self-reports made to us by charities.

We have seen evidence of companies engaging in practices utterly at odds with the code.

These include poorly trained fundraisers – incentivised by commission-only payment models – engaging in high-pressure sales tactics that ignore the code’s central principles: namely, that fundraising must be carried out in a manner that is legal, open, honest and respectful.

This is not necessarily straightforward or simple for charities to prevent.

We have seen that poor and harmful practices can occur despite considerable efforts to carry out due diligence and to have appropriate contracts and monitoring in place.

Nevertheless, this poses a significant risk to the public and the sector, and we must be vigilant and respond effectively.

Trustees should ask their fundraising teams now to look again at their face-to-face arrangements.

Charities must know who is carrying out their fundraising and what their employment and remuneration arrangements are.

Trustees should reflect on the reality that effective monitoring and oversight becomes exponentially more difficult with each level of subcontracting that is introduced.

Charities must assure themselves that all fundraisers are fully trained on the relevant code standards and that this training is regularly refreshed.

They must ensure regular and thorough liaison with all agencies involved so that complaint numbers are monitored and complaints are acted on promptly and effectively.

We know that complaints can act as an effective early warning system and provide an opportunity to act before poor practice becomes deep-rooted in fundraising teams.

Provisions for all of this must be set out unambiguously in contracts. Trustees must do this not only to protect the public and their charity’s reputation, but also in the knowledge that code breaches by fundraising partners and their subcontracted agencies will also be considered a code breach by the charity itself.

While we understand charities’ need for vital funds, we must remember that a charity’s reputation is priceless, and the sector’s relationship with the public relies on trust and confidence that it will do the right thing.

Charitable fundraising will not thrive long term unless the methods by which money is raised are ethical and above reproach – it is in everyone’s collective interests to get this right.

Since 2015, charities have made vast improvements in how they engage in fundraising – and that is reflected in the continuing recovery of the sectors’ reputation.

We know how hard charities work across the UK to fundraise in line with good practice and we want to share this timely and very firm reminder to protect what has been hard earned through those efforts.

We welcome the openness of those charities that have spoken to us recently about the issues they have encountered and how they are dealing with them.

Sharing intelligence and learning across the sector will help us all respond to this challenge effectively.

We urge others to use our self-reporting pathway if they identify concerns in their own organisations, and to contact our code advice service if they have questions about the standards required when planning and carrying out face-to-face fundraising.

We will carry out investigations where we judge there is public interest to do so.

Working together, we can ensure that charity fundraising continues to thrive.

Gerald Oppenheim is chief executive of the Fundraising Regulator

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