Stephen Pidgeon: It's time to go, but just one final thing about consent

After more than five years writing for Third Sector, our columnist has decided to step aside. He leaves with a heavy heart and concerns for the future of fundraising

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

This is my swansong. Third Sector has been kind enough to print my monthly pieces for more than five years and it's high time that other views were heard.

Why stop now? Increasingly, I struggle to bite my tongue when I see the timidity, self-indulgence and hypocrisy that beleaguers fundraising at the moment. Some might speculate, of course, whether my tongue could have been bitten a little more firmly throughout my career.

I'm recently back from a trustees visit to VSO projects in Ethiopia. It was such a privilege, particularly because we went to Tigray Province. Some will remember Michael Buerk's "biblical proportions", the phrase he used nearly 32 years ago to describe the devastation of famine there, brought on both by a lack of rain and a malevolent government withholding food supplies to curtail the spread of insurrection. That government was overthrown and replaced by one that has brought stability and progress.

VSO volunteers working in a teacher training college have contributed to raised teaching standards in Tigray and, unusually, VSO has built a new school room in one village. The whole community turned out to welcome us and we were enveloped in smiles and speeches, fed on bread and honey and given coffee that was pure nectar.

Since 2013, 15 volunteers have helped to raise the standard of neonatal care in the 17 hospitals and health centres in Tigray, and figures show that mortality rates have dropped sharply. As we headed back to Mekele, the capital of Tigray, the farmers were out ploughing a landscape that was the nearest thing to a wilderness I'd ever seen, scraping the ground with oxen and wooden ploughs. Rains were expected, but Buerk's comment seemed as apposite now as then.

The local people thrive in this world through resilience, application and grit. Their good humour and optimism is astounding. Yet I returned to the pathetic capitulations of charity trustees rushing like lemmings towards "opt-in" (writing to donors only with their specific consent), but with no understanding of the "legitimate interest" considerations contained in the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation. It was noticeable in a recent illuminating speech by Richard Marbrow from the Information Commissioner's Office that the word "reasonable" peppered his explanation of how legitimate interest might work. Practices that are "reasonable" can be defended in court because they rely on judgement.

Another of the ICO's little gems still grates on me. Compare Britain and Ethiopia, the former fat and complacent, the latter struggling simply to live, yet still making progress. The ICO has destroyed wealth screening in the UK in the name of individual "data-protection rights". A box that says "please tick here to agree to us checking your wealth" will not get many takers and, because of that, charities will fail in the future to raise hundreds of millions of pounds.

People like those I met in Ethiopia will suffer unnecessarily, and all because of siren calls for stronger "data rights" in this country. What rubbish this is. Take responsibility for your own personal data. If you want it protected, don't give it out. I suspect the whingers for data rights don't give much to charity anyway. It wouldn't be the first time people obsessed with their own interests ignore those of others.

So you see, it's time I stopped. But if you have been... thanks for reading.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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