Stephen Cook: Why the review of fundraising self-regulation is a good thing

The Institute of Fundraising has dragged its feet for too long over problems with the system and public dissatisfaction with some fundraising techniques, says the editor of Third Sector

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Ever since self-regulation of fundraising was set up nine years ago, there have been warning signs about growing public dissatisfaction with some fundraising methods, including street fundraising, enclosures in direct mail, excessive direct mail, telephone fundraising, the treatment of vulnerable people, doorstep fundraising and knocking at houses with no-cold-calling stickers. These signs have been picked up by the Fundraising Standards Board, which monitors and acts as the final arbiter of complaints by charities, and relayed to the Institute of Fundraising, which sets the code of practice that the FRSB has to use as the reference point for its decisions.

The IoF has usually responded to these concerns, but has typically done so slowly and legalistically, and has often created the impression that it does the minimum it feels it can get away with. It has always seemed to regard  the FRSB as unnecessary, treating it as a cuckoo in the nest and accusing it in private of mission drift when it proposes changes. The IoF has dragged its feet over calls from Lord Hodgson and proposals by a firm of consultants for improvements to the unwieldly and confusing structure of self-regulation, and behind closed doors it has dismissed moderately expressed criticism as "anti-fundraising".

This approach was tenable so long as concerns about fundraising did not become a political priority. Indeed, the IoF might have traded on the unlikelihood that it would become so, and on the knowledge that the government was highly unlikely to use its reserve powers for statutory regulation. Now events have conspired to change all that: suddenly the IoF is on the back foot and self-regulation is the subject of a review that has the opportunity to improve the system speedily and significantly. That is a welcome development.

The story is surely a classic example of too little, too late. If you don’t do things that are necessary when the time is right, you can suddenly and unpredictably find them being done to you by the government. When that happens, the things that are done are not necessarily to your liking, the government becomes the hero in the public mind and you lose the moral high ground. This is where the IoF, a professional body that is thinking of seeking chartered status, now finds itself.

Some fundraisers are complaining that public dissatisfaction with their activities is all got up by the press on the back of the Olive Cooke case, whose death turned out to have little to do with charity pressure, and that we are being subjected to knee-jerk government by tabloid. There is certainly an element of that. But the evidence of dissatisfaction has been clear for years to all who were willing to see it, and the surge in complaints to the FRSB after the Cooke case is not invalidated by the fact that her case was misrepresented.

The bottom line is that the industrial end of the fundraising industry is paying the price for behaving too long as if the means were justified by the ends, which it describes with overworked clichés about changing lives and making a difference. It can count itself lucky that the nature and pace of change, now no longer dictated by the IoF, will be determined not by outsiders but by a review panel of people close to the sector who have its best interests at heart.

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