News in focus: Phone call opt-out service threatens charity income

Now that nearly 6 million households have opted out of receiving telemarketing calls via the Telephone Preference Service, charities want to be treated differently from commercial outfits, as Joe Gill reports.

The phone rings during dinner, and it's someone offering double glazing or a new kitchen. Sometimes it's a pre-recorded message or - worse still - an ominous silence that could be a heavy breather. You put the phone down and call back, but the number's been withheld.

People are becoming so fed up with this kind of thing that more and more households are signing up to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) - the 'do-not-call' system which stops unsolicited marketing calls. By last month, 5.9 million households had registered - up from 3.4 million last year and 2 million in 2002.

It's bad news for commercial cold-callers, but also bad news for charities.

"All our charity clients suffer from it terribly," says David Walwin, managing director of telemarketing company NTT Fundraising, whose clients include Action Aid and Save the Children.

"In the worst case we have come across, 50 per cent of a client list was excluded because they are TPS-registered. A huge amount of income is being lost from potential supporters because of the telephone preference service.

"The general feeling is that the growth of cold telemarketing driven by automated diallers is causing people to sign up."

These diallers produce the phenomenon of 'silent' calls because automatic systems, designed to keep agents busy, place calls even when there's no agent available to handle them. The Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) code of practice allows a total of 5 per cent of telemarketing calls to be silent.

Things have become so serious that the Institute of Fundraising is to approach the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which enforces compliance with the TPS, later this month (Third Sector, 29 September).

The institute wants clarification on how the TPS affects charities' ability to contact existing supporters, and will raise the point that charities, because they provide public benefit, should be treated differently to commercial companies. It is not yet clear what its arguments will be, because the telemarketing industry admits it doesn't possess data about whether people would be happy to receive charity calls even if they don't want the commercial ones.

A case for exemption?

Andrew Watt, the institute's deputy chief executive, says: "We need data before we can make a case strongly for an exemption for charities. Anecdotally, many people signing up to the TPS do not fully understand the implications of it, and do not realise that by registering their telephone number on it, they are preventing charities from calling them.

"The blanket nature of the TPS means there are two options: sign up and stop receiving annoying phone calls, but prevent organisations you might want to hear from calling you; or keep being called during dinner by double-glazing companies.

"There is some debate over whether it is okay to make an administration call and then ask for permission to make future marketing calls. We will be seeking clarification from the Information Commissioner on this."

The opt-out service has been run since 1999 by TPS Ltd, which is a subsidiary of the DMA, and, earlier this year, it was reappointed to run the service for another five years by telecoms regulator Ofcom. People can register online or by phone.

A recent Mori poll found that 41 per cent of consumers are now aware that they can register with the TPS to avoid telesales calls. While word of mouth is spreading some knowledge of the service among consumers, Ofcom and the ICO are recommending it to those who complain about unsolicited telemarketing calls.

The growing use of the service is affecting charities across the board.

British Red Cross campaigns manager Saul Charlwood says the charity's fundraising has been affected dramatically by the increased use of the system. "It is increasing at an alarming rate, and is something we need to find a way of overcoming," she said.

The British Red Cross is not currently cold-calling customers, but its 'warm' calling to existing supporters is in difficulty. At least a third of its supporters have registered with the TPS, and the number is growing.

Exclusion clause

The system needs changing, Charlwood believes. "There needs to be a clause in the TPS that means if you have an ongoing relationship you can continue to call them after they register. Talking on the phone is really important for maintaining relationships and to get a good insight into what our supporters like and don't like, and how we are perceived."

Clara Avery, direct marketing manager at Macmillan Cancer Relief said: "We use telephone marketing for warm development, converting cash donors into regular givers, reactivating lapsed donors, and upgrading existing donors. But even a welcome call has an 'ask', which means that we can't call TPS-registered supporters.

"I genuinely believe that many people registering with the TPS misunderstand what it is. People think it is the same as the Mail Preference Service, where charities that already have a relationship with them can continue to mail them. But with the TPS, we can't call them for fundraising or marketing purposes."

Avery says one way to address this is for charities to reword their data-protection statements: "At the moment ours just says 'would you like to be contacted in future?' but it doesn't break down the methods of contact.

"With the rise of the TPS, our wording has to be changed to include all different channels of communication, giving people a chance to opt out."

However, Charlwood is sceptical. "The more options there are, the more daunting and confusing it becomes. If someone finds it complicated the tendency is to say no."

To prepare its case and do the necessary research, the institute has now set up a special interest group led by fundraising companies including NTT, Pure and Pell & Bales. There is clearly a big challenge ahead.

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