RNLI to drop opt-in-only communications policy this week

The life-saving charity says it will rely on 'legitimate interest', given its problems with funding and increased use of its services

RNLI: facing fundraising problems
RNLI: facing fundraising problems

The lifeboat charity the RNLI has announced that it will be abandoning its opt-in-only policy for communicating with potential donors from this week.

The charity’s fundraising director, Jayne George, told Third Sector the charity would be relying on "legitimate interest" from Thursday.

She said the move would give the charity "a more flexible way to engage" with potential supporters in the midst of unprecedented demand for the charity’s services.

The RNLI announced in 2015 that, from 1 January 2017, it would contact people by phone, post or email only if they had actively given their consent.

The move came after the fundraising scandals of 2015 and pre-empted the arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation, a stricter set of data protection rules that came into force in May 2018.

But under the GDPR organisations can also use legitimate interest to contact people by post and phone for marketing and fundraising purposes, if the person can reasonably expect the organisation to do so.

Mark Dowie, chief executive of the RNLI, warned in August that the charity was facing "a perfect storm" of rising demand and falling donations after its accounts for 2018 showed that income fell by £7.2m and rising costs meant the charity had £28.6m less to spend on charitable activities than in the previous year.

Last month Dowie announced the likely loss of 95 full-time jobs as well as 40 temporary positions that would not be continued or vacancies that would not be filled.

When the charity moved to opt-in-only, it estimated that the charity would lose about £35m over the first five years.

But George said the "new financial challenges" the charity was facing meant it would have to raise more money than it had previously factored in.

"We were very, very transparent at the time we went opt-in-only and we were absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do in 2017," she said. "But I think we’re just in a different world now.

"We’re busier than ever, we’re offering 24/7 services and we’ve got to take some action to make sure that is sustainable."

About half a million supporters agreed to opt-in to receiving communications from the charity. George said having these "really committed donors" had given the charity "some real lessons around what motivates them, and what we’d like to do is grow that so we can meet the unprecedented demand for our services".

She added: "For me, fundraising is not about the money, but about the work that needs to be done. For the RNLI that’s never been truer."

She said the charity did not have exact figures at this stage for how many new donors it hoped to recruit through legitimate interest or how much extra money it hoped to raise, and would have to conduct further tests.

"Mainly, we need to engage people meaningfully, and I think legitimate interest will give us the means to do that," said George.

She said moving to legitimate interest would also allow the charity to send safety information to the 18,000 people who were signed up as donors by face-to-face donors on public beaches, who might well be interested but had not necessarily consented to being sent such communications.

The charity would also preserve consents it had already had and would not be contacting people who had previously been given the choice to opt-in and had not done so, she said. Under legitimate interest, these people could reasonably expect not to be contacted.

She said that people who were rescued by the lifeboat service would still be given a choice to opt in.

The charity will also by trialling direct response TV adverts, which George said the charity had never previously done "in a meaningful way", and looking at potential new markets and ways to raise funds, as well as developing progressive partnerships.

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