Stephen Cook: Charities should distance themselves from tricksy marketing practices

Fundraisers should use prominent opt-in questions when asking if donors want to be contacted, writes the editor of Third Sector

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

If someone has indicated to a charity that he or she is willing to receive communications from it, but that person is also registered with the Telephone Preference Service, which protects people from receiving marketing calls, is the charity, or the agencies it employs, justified in phoning the person to ask for an increased donation, for example, or to talk about a special appeal? Would that be "exploiting a loophole", as the Daily Mail described it this week? If it is, should the loophole be closed? To put it another way, should the permission given to the charity trump the TPS, or vice versa?

These are the questions that the Information Commissioner’s Office has volunteered to address in response to the Mail stories by an undercover reporter who found that TPS-registered supporters were indeed being called by the agency GoGen on behalf of several big-name charities. It is important that these questions are sorted out as soon as possible to prevent the situation from festering. The bullying approach that the Mail reported as being urged on telephone fundraisers by their trainers at the agency is indefensible, and it good to see that swift action has been taken by GoGen and the charities; but the loophole question is more nuanced and requires careful consideration.

The answers will depend partly on how the permission to be contacted has been given by the supporter to the charity. There is a world of difference between, on the one hand, someone actively giving permission by replying "yes" to a clear and unequivocal question that is put prominently and unmissably before them and, on the other, giving permission by default in that they fail to notice and tick a small box tucked away in the small print. Legally, there is no difference between the two, and the failure to read the small print is, strictly speaking, no excuse. But in the real world people don’t read the small print or notice the cunningly worded boxes, and a lot of marketing takes a cynical advantage of that fact. It would be wrong to go as far as to say that people are being tricked, but it often feels like that, and if the good name of charities is to be preserved they would do well to separate themselves from the less attractive practices of the marketing world.

The best solution, surely, is greater transparency so that everyone knows where they stand. This might mean, for example, that people are not only asked in an unmissable way whether they want to receive calls, but are also asked if they are signed up to the TPS and, if so, whether they want the charity to be exempt from the no-calling restriction that membership of the TPS confers. All would then be clear. The fear about such an up-front approach, of course, is that it is likely to reduce the number of people charities can approach. Richard Taylor, chair of the Institute of Fundraising, acknowledged this week that eradicating practices that have caused concern recently might reduce the income of charities in the short term. This might well be the case. But in the longer term, with a fundraising regime that has shed the more controversial practices and adopted methods that go down better with donors and the public, there is no reason why giving by a generous public should not recover and grow.

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