Stephen Cook: Charity boards should act to prevent fundraising overkill

Senior fundraisers are anxious to address the problem, but there could be greater involvement at the highest level, writes the editor of Third Sector

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

If there is a good side to the controversy sparked by the Olive Cooke case, it is that the fundraising world is not trying to dodge the issues. The subject is at the top of the agenda of many senior fundraisers at the big charities who appear anxious to take responsibility and modify their ways of working to avoid direct mail and telephone overkill in the future. The Fundraising Standards Board is pressing ahead with its investigation of the case and the Institute of Fundraising stands ready to respond to the outcome.

Rather more ominous are the noises coming from Westminster, where the Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, has – without being specific – pledged that the government will bring forward measures to deal with the issues raised by the Cooke case. A small number of Conservative and Labour MPs are calling for action, prompted by complaints received from their constituents. The fundraising bodies may hear more about the government’s intentions when they meet the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, next week.

Coincidentally, the FRSB has today released an adjudication that illustrates how some charity fundraising can get out of control. Breast Cancer Campaign used a telephone fundraising agency that acquired data from another agency that acquired the data from yet another agency in India that had collected phone numbers by carrying out a "lifestyle survey". Upon examination, the details and reliability of this survey proved, not surprisingly, to be somewhat hazy, and the FRSB has ruled that the charity – now duly contrite – breached parts of the IoF Code of Fundraising Practice. It has also passed aspects of the complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

But Breast Cancer Campaign is almost certainly not the only major charity that has been paying insufficient attention to the provenance of the personal data being used on its behalf, and fundraisers are not the only industry in the frame. Dubiously permissioned data is one of the curses of our age: the world is awash with it, and if charities are not more careful they will end up using it, as in this case, and getting into difficulties as a result. A switch in emphasis from quantity to quality should be the priority now.

What is the way forward in practical terms? A much more circumspect approach by charities to the swapping of donor lists, if not an actual end to it, would help. Roger Craver’s recent book Retention Fundraising, reviewed in Third Sector this month, says the practice has "substantial drawbacks." A much more intractable problem, however, is the availability of lists for sale that make it possible to set up charities out of the blue that rely for their income on multiple mailings to the same group of donors, some of them vulnerable or elderly.

Responsible charities should also make it easier for donors, actual and prospective, to opt out of being contacted: as in other industries, the semi-hidden and confusing wordings about which box to tick if you do or don’t want this or that can seem designed to trip people up. Imposing quotas on mailings might be more problematic – hard to define, hard to police, and potentially unfair.

Above all, fundraising needs to be scrutinised and approved at the highest level in charities. A recent expert article in Third Sector points out that one reason for poor-quality data is that some charity boards set high quotas for mailings in the belief that this is the best way to increase income – and with volume come mistakes and excesses. It’s often said that charity boards typically don’t want to know too much about what’s going on in fundraising, preferring to avert their sensitive eyes. The present crisis – and that is what it is – should prompt them to take a more detailed interest in what’s going on down the corridor and make sure it chimes with their values and those of the charity world generally.

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