Matthew Sherrington: Fundraisers must work to act 'above the line'

They shouldn't sulk about the Information Commissioner's Office, but tune into what supporters will think is the right behaviour

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

When my kids were in elementary school in the US, they had a head teacher called simply Mr C. Mr C was inspirational, aspirational and very popular with the kids. He also ran a tight, no-nonsense ship. He got the children to stick words and pictures of what was good behaviour above a permanent line along a corridor wall, and what was not acceptable below.

And that was it. Kids got recognised for consistent behaviour "above the line". And all Mr C had to say to stop a child playing up was: "Below the line. That’s enough." We even started saying this at home. The children knew what behaviour they’d like to experience and what they wouldn’t; what was ok, and what wasn’t. When it comes to a judgement of what is the right thing to do, we tend to know.

Not so, it seems, for some fundraisers reacting on Twitter to the Information Commissioner's Office conference last week in relation to what a charity donor might consider fair and reasonable use of their private data (read the Institute of Fundraising’s main take-aways here). "The ICO doesn’t get what fundraising involves," was a common refrain. No, it would be nice if it did, but it doesn't need to. More pertinent is the fact that not enough fundraisers have got what data protection involves. Someone reacted to the rudeness of one fundraiser’s response. Another said that, after seeing some comments, they’d think twice about giving to charities at all.

What about the beneficiaries who will suffer because of services that won’t happen because of the money not raised? "A stupid false dichotomy," as @MissIG_Geek retorted. "Choice is NOT between acting lawfully or saving lives. Manipulative tripe."

It’s time to move on. The whinging does the sector no favours. The ICO has laid out what it considers below-the-line behaviour. It has confirmed that data protection and privacy trumps a fundraiser’s right to ask as "legitimate interest". Yes, you can resist through gritted teeth and quibble over what you should be able to do; or you can tune in to what supporters themselves are likely to feel is above or below the line.

Yes, sometimes it may be a judgement call. But if you think about it, like elementary school kids you will know. The fact is, some of our recent fundraising has been well below the line in terms of what supporters might find reasonable, and we know it. When in doubt, asking yourself "If it were done to me, would it feel weird?" is a good place to start.

The paradigm has shifted. We don’t know what the new one looks like fully yet, but the old one is dead. Charities are going to have to work with it and, where things remain ambiguous and down to judgement, work through it, constructively, with the ICO and the Fundraising Regulator. As Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said last week: "You can cling to the belief that we’ve got the law wrong or you can commit to positive change and reap the rewards."

Forward-thinking fundraisers are thinking ahead. Some fundraising activity, such as with major donors, is going to change dramatically. Some income is going to be a lot more uncertain before a new settlement with supporters settles down. Chief executives and boards need to get their heads around this too if they still think demanding aggressive income targets sounds a good idea.

So come on fundraisers, don’t sulk. Don’t be a dying horse, kicking wildly. Embrace the new order of inspiring and engaging donors, finding new ways to excite and involve them. And commit to behaving above the line.

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

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners