Rebecca Cooney: The 'begging letter' story beggars belief

The Daily Telegraph's fundraising coverage over the weekend was a mess, but Lord Grade should bear some responsibility, says Rebecca Cooney

In the two years since Lord Grade became chair of the Fundraising Regulator, he has never been shy about expressing his opinion about fundraising in strong and distinctive terms.

The news story in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, based on an interview with Grade, appeared to be another case in point. The headline declared "Charities dodge begging ban" and the first paragraph of the piece promised a "crackdown" on charities that send free gifts such as pens and keyrings with their fundraising asks.

So what did Grade have to say about this? As it turns out, very little.

On the promised "crackdown", the newspaper reported that Grade said he agreed with concerns about free gifts, which were mentioned in the vast majority of complaints about direct mail in 2016, and the regulator was "learning from the public". That was it. He didn’t even say he’d look into the matter.

According to the article, charities were deviously dodging "around the ban" on contacting vulnerable people by removing names from direct mail and replacing them with the words "Dear Homeowner".

"The ban" referred to in the article was probably a reference to the Fundraising Preference Service, which blocks contact from a specific charity to a named individual, if the individual requests it.

The article also completely failed to demonstrate that unaddressed mail was an issue. It mentioned the regulator’s 2016 complaints statistics – 16,131 complaints about addressed mail – but not the number of complaints about unaddressed mail, including "Dear Homeowner" letters. This might well have been because there were only 329.

And nowhere in either article was Grade or anyone else quoted as describing charities as "dodging the ban". Stephen Dunmore, the regulator’s chief executive, was quoted explaining the legal situation with "Dear Homeowner" mail, but he did not accuse charities of exploiting a loophole.

Sometimes as a journalist you can see what an interview subject is getting at but they’ve phrased it badly, so you put it in reported speech, telling the reader what they said rather than quoting it directly. But the writer here hasn’t even done that.

Obviously, no one knows what was said in the interview except the journalist and Grade. But given Grade’s penchant for colourful language, if he’d wanted to say these things he would have done, and the writer would have repeated it in some form.

The regulator has since published a hasty clarification that it wasn’t seeking to ban gifts and did not think charities were dodging the rules.

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Telegraph knew what angle it wanted and didn’t let the lack of quotes or facts get in the way.

The article was a mess, but begged a question: given that he clearly had nothing new to say, why did Grade do the interview in the first place?

Grade seems to relish the opportunity to promote the regulator in the national media, but every time he speaks to them it leads to confusion and creates consternation among fundraisers as these outlets prove once again that they don’t understand the details of the charity sector.

No one is denying that the sector has been guilty of bombarding and targeting people in the past. But standards have been improving in the past year, as the regulator itself has acknowledged.

The Donating Trends Survey 2017, published in March by Third Sector, has shown that trust in charities is slowly returning, but it’s delicate. This type of unwarranted negative coverage really doesn’t help.

If Grade is going to sit down with the national media, he and the regulator need to make sure they have a clearer message beforehand.

Or perhaps they could take a break from courting publicity for the watchdog and devote their energy to making the case for charities paying the levy by showing the value that having such a regulator brings. 

Yes, we need the public to be aware of the regulator, but the ultimate goal of that is to restore confidence in charities – not publicity for publicity’s sake.

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