Opinion: Hot issue - Does opt-out fundraising alienate supporters?

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has been accused of 'covert' fundraising techniques after it sent out a letter informing its supporters that their direct debits will be increased unless they write back to object.


This is suddenly a hot topic because someone has complained - so the answer has to be yes. The wider issue is one of principle, transparency and respect for the donor's wishes. What defines best practice? We have to find the right balance between a successful technique that raises lots of money and the negative impact it might have on donors.

We have to balance the recognition that charities are viewed differently against the right to ask and fundraise. This is a very important balance and one that the introduction of self-regulation and the Fundraising Standards Board will give us the proper platform to debate. That said, the last thing we wish to see are unnecessary barriers to successful fundraising.

A fundamental aspect of self-regulation will be the need for complaints to be directed to the charity itself. Participants in self-regulation will need to sign up to the Codes of Fundraising Practice, and we welcome the opportunity to thoroughly examine specific areas of fundraising in order to reach decisions about what is best practice.

Any fundraising technique that draws complaints runs the risk of damaging a charity's reputation, and this must be a key concern of the trustees, not just the fundraisers.


The key here is the word 'covert'. There is nothing unethical about opt-out fundraising, as long as the organisation employing it is up-front and entirely transparent about what they are asking individual supporters to sign up to.

It has been standard practice for many charities to use this type of change and raise the amount they are asking for. It is quite normal for a supporter to sign a variable direct debit when they sign up to sponsor a cause. The organisation informs members when it wishes to periodically increase the amount they have agreed to give, and it then goes ahead without a problem.

However, if the WDCS has received complaints because it has not been as clear as it could have been about its intentions to increase supporter direct debits, perhaps it needs to re-evaluate its communication methods and ensure it is crystal clear the next time it wishes to raise its rates.


When a person signs up to a membership organisation, it is quite normal to sign a variable direct debiting instruction. Periodically, when the organisation increases its membership rate, it informs the members, then goes ahead. I don't see any problem with this, and most membership organisations have been operating like it for many years.

However, the direct debiting instruction on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society website is for fixed amounts, with no mention of variation being made. I would not be happy myself if I suddenly found the amount increased.

I presume the small print that states "please pay WDCS direct debits from the account detailed in this instruction subject to the safeguards assured by the direct debit guarantee" means that the WDCS can increase the donation the way it has done - but I am not sure many people will realise that is what "the safeguards assured by the direct debit guarantee" means, if indeed it is the case.


It is important to note that 'opt-out' is not new for charity marketers.

The National Trust, the RSPB, the RSPCA and English Heritage all do 'opt-out' for annual direct debit subscription increases by mail.

We had not increased our monthly subscription for eight years, and feedback from our supporters was that they wanted more from their adoption product.

We successfully relaunched our product with new benefits, at a new price.

The question was how best to communicate this to the existing file - we chose an opt-out mailing.

Opt-out fundraising does not alienate supporters, as long as it is done properly. It is important that any marketer considering it does their research. Do your supporters want an improved product? Is the increase (in our case £1 a month) palatable?

Such fundraising should also be tested and rolled out, leaving a decent period to properly assess impact. It should also include a thorough explanation of why the new price is necessary and what the benefits are for both supporter and cause.

Finally, they should be explicit about the new cost and when it is due to take effect - we included this information three times in our mailing.

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