Ian MacQuillin: The move to opt-in-only has been a disaster - but why?

We need to understand why the fundraising crisis happened, but no one has done that properly, so all we've done is put in place solutions that have led to more problems

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

< This article has been amened; see final paragraph

Three years ago, the RNLI predicted it would lose £35m in donations over five years (in other words, £7m a year) as a result of its decision to contact only those donors who had consented (opted-in) to receiving further fundraising communications.

The good news is that this dire forecast hasn’t come to pass. True, the RNLI did suffer a fall in income of £7m last year. But the charity’s chief executive has said that the trumpeted and much-publicised move to opt-in has not been to blame for this fall.

And yet, across the sector, the move to consent as the recommended mechanism for GDPR compliance has been a total disaster (PECR – governing electronic communications such as email and text – has different rules that require consent).

Everyone knows this. Rather than it being an open secret that is discussed in closed social media groups and admitted in private conversations, this sectoral failure needs to be brought out into the light and owned by those responsible for the failure.

Those sector representative bodies that recommended as a matter of policy that charities only contact their donors on the basis of consent (eschewing the legally and morally permissible option of legitimate interest where, of course, legitimate interest is legally available) need to formally retract this recommendation.

Those charities that followed this recommendation now need to be honest about the impact it has had on their fundraising so that other charities can learn from their mistakes.

We talk a good talk about being open and honest in this sector. Well, that means being open and honest about failures too.

Another lesson is how we got to this situation in the first place.

The move towards opt-in consent came about as part of the response to the fundraising crisis of 2015. As everyone will be fully aware, one of the symptoms of the fundraising crisis was the negative impact on people as a result of their data being processed by charities (in order to contact them or to share with other charities).

So measures were proposed to redress this balance. One of these was the Fundraising Preference Service. Another was the official predisposition for consent as the basis for processing data.

This highlights the superficiality of some decision-making at the sector level.

From the complex web of causal factors that activated the phenomena that emerged in 2015 (which we now call the "fundraising crisis"), policy-makers picked out some of these emergent phenomena and proposed solutions for them, with little understanding of what had caused the phenomena they were trying to fix.

Despite it being such a turning point in fundraising in the UK, no one really knows what factors caused or led to the fundraising crisis, because no one has bothered to investigate it. Not properly. Not in a way that aimed to unravel this complicated web of causal factors.

Instead, we’ve assumed the causes of the factors we observed were obvious, then put in place solutions (such as opt-in and the FPS) that, though they might have been a fix for one problem, caused other (and in no way unforeseen) problems, such as decimated donor bases and drastic falls in donations, and perhaps a reduction in the number of people being contacted, as reported by the Charities Aid Foundation earlier this year. And the impact on legacy income could be a ticking time bomb that won’t be felt for years.

This is not just a criticism of the response to the fundraising crisis. We see this superficiality – considering only effects, not causes – in many other areas of policy, practice and research in the fundraising sector.

This is the key thing we can take from the opt-in consent debacle. When we encounter a massive problem in fundraising that needs our urgent attention, we need to take our time to try to understand all the things that might have caused what we are experiencing, so that we can better understand and explain them.

If we can better understand and explain them, we’re almost certain to put in place better solutions.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

< This article has been amended to reflect the fact the author is writing about recommendations about compliance with the GDPR, and that PECR contains different rules for consent.

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