Ian MacQuillin: Long live the 'Fundraising' Preference Service

The new FPS is not actually a 'fundraising' preference service at all - because it will cover all communications from a charity, writes our guest columnist

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

We’re all breathing a sigh of relief that the final plans for the Fundraising Preference Service ­– unveiled yesterday by the Fundraising Regulator – no longer contain the total reset button that would have allowed people to stop all fundraising from all charities. Common sense has prevailed.

Instead, people will nominate the charities they no longer wish to hear from. Much better. More common sense.

But what was almost overlooked during this flood of common sense is that the FPS that will burst into life next year is not actually a ‘fundraising’ preference service at all. That’s because it will cover all comms from a charity – that doesn’t just include all lobbying, advocacy, and campaigning, which falls under the Information Commissioner Office’s definition of direct marketing, but also admin comms (such as letting supporters know that you’ve moved offices), and, crucially, service information for beneficiaries (which may or may not fall under the ICO definition).

So while for a year, the sector has been focused on and working towards a ‘fundraising’ preference service, what we actually have is a ‘charity’ preference service.

How we came to have a CPS instead of an FPS raises serious issues about how our sector is governed that we should not just sweep under the carpet in the interest of not rocking the SS Common Sense.

The first is that there are almost certainly potentially bad unintended consequences that we have not had a chance to identify and thrash out. For example, a beneficiary of charity could register with the FPS, because they don’t want to be asked for donations, only to find they stop receiving service information.

Consultations help to identify potential problems like this - yet we have not had one for the CPS. We were asked to consider the need for a ‘fundraising’ preference service. It now feels like that whole process was a sham. If we were told the option was an opt-out for all charity communications, then our responses could well have been different.

The second point is how did this decision come about? No-one knew it was coming. No-one knows how it happened. But, apparently, there was lots of ‘back-room lobbying’ by the likes of the Institute of Fundraising.

This raises questions of transparency and accountability to the wider charity sector about how important decisions are made: if ‘back-room lobbying’ is being done by bodies that claim to represent fundraisers, should those bodies have a mandate from their members and/or be accountable to them for the decisions they make?

It also shows the Fundraising Regulator will make decisions by fiat, which, as an independent regulator, is indeed its right. But it’s clear that F-Reg feels little need to be accountable to the people it regulates. Next on F-Reg’s to do list is changing the Code of Fundraising Practice. You now know what to expect from that process.

And, finally, we come to why we’ve moved from the FPS to the CPS, from an opt-out from fundraising to an opt-out from all charity comms.

Despite the slightly dubious post hoc justifications that this is simpler for donors, or that it solves a ‘tragedy of the commons’ (until now, no-one has suggested there is a tragedy of the commons in charity comms; fundraising yes, but all communications?), the reason is simpler.

It’s because it proved too difficult for the Fundraising Regulator to come up with a workable definition of ‘fundraising communication’.

That should have been the final nail in the FPS’s coffin. We all knew it was unworkable and the fact that it wasn’t possible to define a fundraising communication just proves it. Without the total reset and the ability to block fundraising communications, the whole rationale for the FPS evaporates.

What I find staggering is that the Fundraising Regulator could not define ‘fundraising communication’ – the very thing they are set up to regulate. If they can’t define the thing they regulate, how can we trust them to do that and have confidence that they will do it properly and proportionately?

This is not about whether a CPS is a good idea or a potential disaster. That’s a debate for another time (a time we should already have had). It is about the governance of the profession and how important decisions in fundraising are made. The F/CPS decision raises questions fundraisers need answers to.

Ian MacQuillin is the director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the University of Plymouty Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy

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