Matthew Sherrington: Don't rush in to use opt-in

Smaller charities have the most to lose from moving to opt-in communications without proper planning, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

To opt in, or not to opt in, that seems to have been the question of late regarding supporter mailings in the wake of the Information Commissioner’s guidance on data protection and consent.

The issue here, if you really haven’t been paying attention, is about charities getting on top of data-protection requirements in the wake of malpractice, and getting supporter permissions to contact them. Email and text consent is straightforward – you have to have opted in to get those. But with direct mail and telemarketing you don’t.

Securing explicit opt-in consent is best practice, says the ICO. Offering an opt-out is not the same as consent and could be interpreted as being tricksy, taking advantage of the supporter’s inaction. But offering opt-in is not the law, and not what the General Data Protection Regulation will require. Yet some big names have opted to go opt-in: the RNLI, for example, which exceeded its expectations in terms of supporters opting in and ongoing results. Other charities have reported take-up of only 15 per cent, yet it seems that some charities are jumping to do "best practice" without their eyes open.

With this opt-in guidance still unclear and open to interpretation, my heart sank to receive a mailing recently from a small charity I have supported in the past, all about date protection and privacy. Proactive and positive, you might think. Except that below the opt-in boxes was the line, "unless we hear back from you, you will not receive any further communication from us".

That might seem the obvious outcome if you’re asking people to opt in and they don’t, even if it is a particularly brutal way to put it. (No one I showed the text to thought it other than a terrible way to go about it.) Worse, however, was how badly the message was delivered.

Nothing on the envelope to indicate how critical a response was; no personalised letter; no Freepost return envelope. All these are basic things if you want to optimise the response to your letter. And let’s face it, this was probably the most important letter and request this charity could ever send – for permission to write again – needing a record-breaking response rate. I suspect this charity just lost its entire supporter base.

Small charities can be wonderfully top-of-class when it comes to supporter care, being able to offer high-touch and personal relationships that larger charities would die for, but can’t replicate at scale. Nonetheless, larger charities can invest in more sophisticated supporter retention and engagement programmes (which do cost money), and have access to a lot of advice from agencies and even lawyers to inform their decisions.

A recent post on the US fundraising blog The Agitator highlighted the latest Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report, reviewing the 2016 data for more than 10,000 US non-profits. "Perhaps most striking is the performance difference in retention between the top 20% organizations, who lost on average 14.1% of their new donors, whereas the bottom 20% lost a whopping 68.3%. Who did the worst? The little guys… organizations with revenue less than $100k, those with the least resources to put into donor engagement."

Those statistics relate to the US market, where fundraising is predominantly based on single cash gifts, and recruiting and retaining new donors can sometimes feel like a revolving door. But the warning to small charities probably holds true. If you’re not completely confident in what you’re doing, tread with extreme care.

Ken Burnett also weighed in after corresponding with the ICO on the question of seeking opt-in consent, which he has published for all to read and heed. Securing consent is not the only way to approach mailing supporters: there is also the consideration of "legitimate interest". And as Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirmed to Burnett, the ICO guidance on consent doesn’t even address that. Further guidance on that will follow. Too late for the charity above, the Institute of Fundraising has also just published its GDPR guidance for fundraisers, which will be the basis for forthcoming data-protection seminars.

In light of all this, it would seem that the best advice for now would be: don’t rush in to use opt-in.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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