When I got home the other night, I opened a letter from a charity I support that made me really sit up and take notice. It was from Friends of the Lake District, which has an income of about £1m and works to protect and enhance a landscape I have walked in nearly every year of my adult life. Founded 80 years ago, FLD does things like planting trees, repairing walls and paths, invigilating planning applications and campaigning for the burial of power lines.
The letter didn’t contain news, an appeal for funds or a thank-you. Rather, it was a heartfelt disclaimer from the chief executive, Douglas Chalmers, about the "inappropriate fundraising methods" some charities have been using. "The stories in the press represent a huge betrayal of trust by a minority of charities towards their donors," he wrote. "If I was a donor, I would be wondering if any charity I supported was behaving properly."
The letter went on to reassure supporters that FLD did not buy or sell personal data, never used agencies to make fundraising calls and did not "bombard those who are potentially vulnerable – in fact, we don’t bombard anyone". It emphasised that all its supporters had chosen freely to engage with the charity, that it took people’s communications preferences seriously and that when administrative phone calls were necessary "we do it ourselves because we like talking to you".
The letter is further evidence of the growing unease, shading into anger, among smaller charities that fear being tarred with the same brush as those larger organisations that – in some cases justifiably, in others not – have been pilloried in the media and elsewhere. It follows the recent claim by Majorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, that smaller charities have suffered reputational damage and falling donations because of the fundraising practices of some larger charities.
When I rang Chalmers, he said that donations to the FLD had not been falling, but he had become increasingly nervous about media stories almost every week concerning public unhappiness about what some charities do. "I was trying to put myself in a supporter’s shoes, possibly reading the Daily Mail or watching Panorama, and wanted to remind people that we don’t do these things.
"The decision to send the letter was not taken lightly, not least because it is a significant cost to mail our 6,500 members. But I’m delighted that it’s had a really good response – people saying thanks for letting us know and that they had known we were doing the right thing anyway."
The letter reminded me of a case study Third Sector published in September about Friends of the Earth writing to 52,000 supporters in the wake of the Olive Cooke case, checking whether it was communicating with them in the way they preferred and reassuring them about its fundraising methods. It received, against some internal expectations, a very positive response and an increase in donations.
Chalmers said he hadn’t heard of other small charities sending out similar letters, but I would speculate that there may well be others who have done it, or at least have thought of doing something similar because they have similar concerns. Some larger charities might also be emulating Friends of the Earth or will be using their websites to disseminate such messages.
Clearly it is possible for charities both small and large to repair any hidden damage done by the exposure of the more industrial fundraising methods that have harmed the general image of charity in recent months. People evidently respond well to being contacted, consulted and reassured by their charities in the current climate. There would appear to be a message here for everyone.