The Fundraising Standards Board has not clarified how it will report on complaints, writes Helen Barrett.
When the Fundraising Standards Board unveiled its logo and complaint-handling process last week, it had yet to resolve one crucial question: how it plans to report its findings.
The FSB did confirm that the question is "on the agenda", although there is no date for a decision. But the issue of whether to publish complaint summaries - and, if so, whether those summaries should identify charities that are found to be in breach of the Institute of Fundraising's codes of practice - could be crucial to the success and credibility of the scheme with the public and the Government.
From October, if a member of the public finds a street fundraiser to be aggressive, for example, or if a potential legator is offended by a charity's request to be included in his or her will, the aggrieved person will be able to use the FSB's three-stage complaints system.
"If we do publish complaints reports, we will be aiming for reports that are generic rather than ones that identify specific charities," said Colin Lloyd, chair of the FSB. "We hope to inform members about our adjudications by asking the institute to review the codes of practice in the light of our decisions."
Charities aren't obliged to sign up to the FSB scheme, so the board is keen to attract as many organisations as possible. For an annual fee, members will be required to display the FSB's 'tick' logo on fundraising material wherever practical to show that they are committed to the institute's codes of practice and the Donors' Charter.
Charities must decide whether to sign up to the scheme. But are they prepared to be named in a formal complaints report if they breach the code?
Paul Farthing, legacy fundraising director at Cancer Research UK, welcomes the FSB's cautious approach. "The sector isn't starting from a point where there is a crisis of public confidence in fundraising," he says. "The board will be adjudicating on charities that make genuine mistakes rather than those that breach the codes intentionally - I would be concerned about rushing into print with their names."
But Farthing also believes that, although the FSB should not identify those charities that breach the code through human error or a lack of resources, it would be reasonable to name those charities that flagrantly breach it. "If a charity repeatedly and deliberately flouts the code, and is given a fair chance to address the problem and fails to do so, I support naming them," he says.
Giles Pegram, director of fundraising at the NSPCC, does not entirely share Farthing's view. He believes that the FSB should publish its thought-processes, but not the names of charities. "Publishing the nature of complaints is the right thing to do," he says. "But it is too simplistic to distinguish between naming charities that flagrantly breach the code and those that do so because of human error - there is an enormous grey area in between."
There are advantages for regulatory bodies in publishing complaints summaries that name those organisations that breach its code. The Advertising Standards Authority, the established self-regulatory organisation for the advertising industry, publishes them regularly.
The ASA's complaints reports are popular because they are freely available to anyone; they explain what the authority's 'mood' is on an issue and they act as rolling 'case law' that can disseminate good practice among the advertising industry more quickly than a change in legislation or a code review. And from the ASA's perspective, its complaints reports showcase how robust, logical and thorough its decision-making process is if it decides to ban an advert. This is useful when the ASA has to demonstrate to the public and the Government that, as a regulator, it has teeth.
The FSB will also have to demonstrate such robustness. The Government has made provision in the Charities Bill for statutory regulation should self-regulation fail. The Government will review the work of the FSB within five years and has said its decision will depend on evidence of "fair and effective sanctions for non-compliance" and the dissemination of good practice throughout the sector.
The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit first recommended fundraising should become self-regulatory in 2002 in its report Private Action, Public Benefit, with the aim of "building on the high levels of public trust in the sector's fundraising activities". Eventually, the FSB hopes donors will look for the 'tick' before giving any money.
If it is to succeed, the FSB is bound to come under pressure by 2011 to provide convincing evidence of its effectiveness to both government and the public. To do that, it may find it has no option but to report its findings to the outside world.