Hopeful signs from the RNLI's opt-in experiment

The first sector organisation to move to an opt-in-only system of communications, the life-saving charity has had good results from attempts to get existing supporters to say yes

In October 2015 the RNLI made a bold move.

The charity, which saves lives at sea, became the first organisation in the sector to announce that it would move to an opt-in-only system of communications.

The charity pledged that, from 1 January 2017, it would stop contacting individuals by telephone, email or post unless they had actively given their consent for the charity to do so. The RNLI predicted that this would cost it £36m over the following five years – equivalent to 19 per cent of the charity’s income of £190m in 2014.

Tim Willett, the charity’s head of funding strategy, says the move has not been the disaster that some in the sector had predicted. In fact, it has led the charity to spend significantly less on fundraising by concentrating its efforts on fewer supporters whom it knows are engaged with the charity.

"I see this as being almost a step across the Rubicon to a new world of engagement and fundraising," he says.

The charity has spent almost £3m on its project to move to opt-in, which it calls Blue Skies, including research, a marketing campaign with the marketing analysis firm fast.MAP designed to encourage its supporters to opt in and new technology.

Launched in March, the campaign, called Communication Saves Lives, gives supporters the message that "the biggest danger we face now is losing touch". It uses direct mail, email, social media and adverts.

However, instead of promoting the campaign to the two million supporters on the charity’s database, Willett says, the RNLI decided to target only the 900,000 people it knew were warm and engaged supporters.

"We took the view that if people hadn’t been visibly engaged with us over a number of recent communications, they weren’t likely to opt in anyway, so marketing to them would have been a wasted resource," says Willett.

"We accept there will be a few supporters in that group who would have happily opted in, but the amount of money we would have had to spend to identify those individuals would have far outweighed the opportunity."

Of the 900,000 contacted by the charity in March, 223,000 – a quarter – opted in. Two different marketing concepts were tested: some supporters received letters or emails in which the charity’s chief executive asked them to opt in; others received communications in which a local representative, such as a lifeboat crew member resident in their area, made the plea.

"Interestingly, both were well received and there was no real difference between the two," says Willett.

In August, the charity got in touch for a second time to ask supporters if they wanted to give consent, resulting in a further 87,000 people opting in. To date, more than 382,000 people, 42 per cent of the 900,000 warm and engaged supporters, have opted in. That is substantially more than the 225,000 the charity had predicted, although Willett admits that this estimate was deliberately conservative.

The RNLI is now asking its existing supporters one last time if they wish to opt in. "For the last wave of the campaign, in November, we’ve tailored some of it specifically to supporters who give regularly, either as a direct debit giver or as a member," says Willett. "From supporter feedback, we've found that people in this group of supporters assume they've already opted in, so we've made it a bit clearer that they have not."

Willett says it felt right for the charity to give people three opportunities to say they wanted to opt in because it gave the charity the chance to assess each wave and process the people who had responded after each one.

The charity’s first attempt at fundraising from its opted-in supporters produced strong results. Of the 66,000 opted-in people approached for the charity’s annual summer appeal, the response rate was 32.8 per cent – more than triple the 10.4 per cent rate the charity achieved in 2015. The average donation was £8.39, almost triple the £2.94 average donation for the previous year’s appeal, and the net income from this year’s campaign was £526,000, compared with £803,000 in 2015.

Willett is delighted with the results, but says that, for now, the charity is sticking with its projection that it will lose £36m in the five years to 2020, including about £11m in 2016.

The Fundraising Preference Service, which is expected to be launched early next year, and the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect in 2018, pose a risk to the organisation, he admits.

The charity’s concerns here are reflected in its submission to the Fundraising Regulator’s final consultation on how the FPS should work, in which it highlights that charity supporters might not realise that registering with the FPS after opting in would nullify their opt-in.

On balance, however, Willett believes the RNLI is in no worse a position than any other charity awaiting the effects on their fundraising of these new regulations.

"This was the right thing to do," says Willett. "All charities are probably going to have to move in this direction to some degree. I hope we can provide a guide as to what best practice might look like."

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