Opinion: Hot issue - Does list-swapping lead to direct mail overkill?

The RNLI refuses to exchange lists of supporters with other charities because it believes donors could be receiving so much direct mail from charities that they are becoming more reluctant to respond to appeals.


List swaps can and do work in many sectors, particularly for charity fundraising. Common sense should, however, dictate how many organisations should be allowed access to a database. If you let the world and his wife have access to your data with no limits, the database could suffer from fatigue, so the frequency of mailings received by any one person on a list needs to be tightly controlled.

Successful list-swapping relies on moderation - don't saturate your list, pick and choose your 'swap partners' carefully and restrict usage. Too little systematic attention is paid to ensuring there is a true affinity between your donors.

No charity should expect to rely solely on swapped data. Instead, there should be a good mix of external data sources, and you should mix your swap data with more premium rented data.

Finally, data-analysis techniques must be used to track the individuals on your database who have been swapped with other organisations. You can track what happens to them over time and look for any correlation between the use of their information by other companies and the amount they are donating to you. If donation rates have fallen, then list-swapping could be leaching support away from your cause.


The RNLI makes a point of not sharing supporter data with other organisations, despite the fact that we are aware that other charities find list-swapping effective. We do this because our supporters tell us that one reason they like supporting us is that we do not cause them to be bombarded with direct mail.

We believe that doing what our supporters want will ensure they support us more generously and for longer. Research has shown that direct mail is not popular, so we reckon that minimising its use is good for our relationship with our supporters - and, without wishing to sound sanctimonious, it's probably good for the sector as a whole.

I suppose we could take the view that if everyone else is benefiting from list-swapping, we might as well join in. We could also claim that by eschewing a technique that can be cost-effective, we are not maximising our investment in fundraising.

I'm with our supporters on this: by supporting a particular charity, one is not signing up to have half a rainforest stuffed through one's letterbox.


Donors are to be treasured. Any charity that doesn't recognise that in this day and age is missing the point. Worse, they're putting their income and future stability at risk by treating their supporters as commodities to be traded on the open market.

Too many fundraisers continue to be driven by the pressure to make short-term gains at the expense of far more valuable long-term rewards. List-swapping simply doesn't pay. Imagine someone sends you £10. Perhaps your mailshot lands on the right day. It touches a nerve and, hey presto - they give. They place their trust in you. And what do you do? Betray that trust by giving their personal details to the highest bidder.

Next thing they know, they're fair game for everyone - cats' homes, children's hospices, save the trees, save the whale: you name it, they're getting it. Then, 20 years later, your legacy department gets a letter from the solicitor of that person whose name you swapped all those years ago. Very sorry, it says, Mrs X had put you in her will, but she decided to give it to the cats' home instead. Think I'm exaggerating? Don't bank on it.


Many charities are increasingly involved in swapping donor details. The Scottish SPCA has a very strict data-protection policy: we assure our donors that we will not pass their details on to any third parties.

Swapping lists can lead to resentment from donors because once they have given a donation they are likely to be bombarded with mailings from several other charities in quick succession. If donors receive large amounts of direct mail it can lead to donor apathy and communications will be binned, which is hugely detrimental to fundraising.

Direct mail is an important and necessary tool in the not-for-profit sector, but over-mailing individuals only adds to the general public's dislike of so-called junk mail. Donor privacy is a growing concern, and we want donors to be confident that their personal details will not be passed on. As a donor, I want to be safe in the knowledge that my personal details will remain private.

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