Stephen Pidgeon: The ICO has got it wrong about wealth screening

Our columnist questions whether the Information Commissioner's views on wealth screening are hers or the tabloids

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

My confidence in fundraising has taken a battering. The Information Commissioner's Office report on the British Heart Foundation and the RSPCA at the end of 2016 condemned data practices that are also now outlawed by the Code of Fundraising Practice. But the ICO also criticised the wealth screening of these charities' donor files.

Consider this. You want to door-drop a neighbourhood with appeals for your local charity, so you profile your existing donors and choose the streets you door-drop. It's basic marketing. And you see in the local paper that John Smith has sold his firm for a large sum. John is on your donor base, has been for years, so you mark his file as someone to invite to an event. He might be interested in making a significant gift and neither he, nor you, will know unless you ask him.

Again, no problem: the sale of John's company was public information. But doing that efficiently by profiling your donor base against a compiled file where all company sales are recorded, together with a mass of other financial information? That's not allowed - it's against the Data Protection Act without express permission. But that's not right - the act is much vaguer. It is the opinion of the Information Commissioner. What sort of "express permission" would ever be given? "We want to find out how rich you are; tick here to agree"!

News of this ICO adjudication hit the headlines before its official release. A leak was denied by the commissioner, but I feel there was a clear atmosphere of inappropriate political drama. My guess is that 90 per cent of the larger charities in this country have been wealth screening their donors for decades, with no more "permission" than the RSPCA and the BHF.

So, too, have 100 per cent of the commercial firms that target their products to the value of customers. This issue is not confined to charities. Yet, in all the 100-plus ICO adjudications in 2016, I could not find a single commercial firm censured for wealth screening.

In the charity investigation reports, the commissioner gives weight to her view that wealth screening is "likely to cause substantial damage or distress". Has she evidence for this? Is it a personal view, or the Daily Mail's? It is far from clear that it's the law.

Which brings me to the singularly unhelpful alert from the Charity Commission. It gave no indication that the practice is long-established and widespread. It is so ignorant of charity practice it probably doesn't know. It expressed no view about the multiple millions charities will lose because they can't source major donors this way. Using inflammatory language designed to impress its paymasters, it dumped responsibility on trustees in a series of commands reminiscent of my junior school headmaster, a singularly unpleasant man. People want a strong charity sector. Tie our hands much closer and they'll lose it. Permanently.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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