Ian MacQuillin: The UK's self-regulation regime isn't half bad

Sure, there are problems with the fundraising regulation system, but it's actually the world leader and other countries can learn from us

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

There is just so much wrong with the self-regulation of fundraising in the UK, isn’t there? The white elephant that is the Fundraising Preference Service. The former chair of the Fundraising Regulator shooting from the hip about the fundraising "wild west". All that nonsense about consent-only fundraising.

Well, of course there are some things wrong with it.

But there is actually a lot that is right about fundraising self-regulation in the UK and works really well.

In fact, the UK is the world leader in self-regulation of fundraising. I say this with a certain amount of confidence, having recently co-authored (with Adrian Sargeant and Harriet Day of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy) a review of global fundraising self-regulation for the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

The UK has the world’s most comprehensive and most nuanced code of practice. In many countries the codes are far more general or simplistic, or just copied and pasted from somewhere else. Many countries’ codes also conflate ethics and best practice, something that the Fundraising Regulator’s code, for the most part, steers well clear of.

The UK has, through the Fundraising Regulator and the Scottish Fundraising Standards Panel, proven accessible and transparent – and independent – processes for public complaints. But many countries’ complaint processes are meant for professional whistleblowers, and the public wouldn’t know where to start in reporting a breach of the relevant code of practice. Phone number on the professional association’s home page? You’ll be lucky.

And with the Institute of Fundraising’s compliance directorate, the UK has some of the most widespread proactive mechanisms for ensuring fundraisers stick to the rules. Few countries go into the field to check on fundraiser compliance.

In looking to improve and upgrade their self-regulatory regimes for fundraising, or if they are starting from scratch, most countries should look at borrowing or adapting from the UK.

But they should not copy blindly. Because Britain’s self-regulatory regime is far from perfect and has many flaws. In looking to borrow and adapt, emerging regulation has an opportunity to consider how to improve upon the UK system. And for the UK to maintain its position as the standard bearer of self-regulation, it should not rest on its laurels, but also look to improve.

First, all self-regulatory regimes for fundraising should aim to comply with the five principles of good regulation as set out in the UK government’s Better Regulation Agenda, which states that regulation should be proportional, accountable, consistent, transparent and targeted. Much UK self-regulation fails some of these five tests, the FPS being a prime offender, and no sane emerging self-regulatory regime should ever entertain thoughts of replicating the FPS.

Second, many self-regulatory regimes (or components thereof) firmly – and proudly – see themselves as public champions, intending to "empower" donors and to protect their interests (such as not "wasting" donations on overhead costs).

Yet best practice in regulatory theory says regulators should work with their regulated industry to help it to grow and not put "unnecessarily restrictive" regulation in its way. In future we need to see self-regulatory regimes ditch the "them and us" polarisation and work more closely with, rather than against, the fundraising profession. Historically, the UK hasn’t been great at this and could still do better.

And third, regulatory theory also recommends that, though regulatory bodies should be independent of the industry they regulate, the code should nonetheless be developed by industry experts because they know what they’re talking about. Too many regulatory bodies around the world think they know better than fundraisers, with the result that they are often distrusted by fundraisers. The lesson for countries establishing fundraising self-regulation for the first time is to make practitioners central to developing the code and not push them to the margins.

So the verdict on UK self-regulation? It’s by no means as bad as we sometimes complain. And we should be proud of what we have developed here. Nonetheless, the bad bits are quite bad and a bit more self-awareness from those involved in self-regulation is the starting point to fixing this.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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