Stephen Service: The lesson from Selling Barbara is review your old data now

Last Friday's BBC Radio 4 documentary provides a reminder that charities should take the opportunity to reassess the data they hold, writes the Fundraising Regulator's policy manager

Stephen Service
Stephen Service

BBC Radio 4’s Selling Barbara programme last Friday was a good example of balanced broadcasting, which took pains to go beyond the headlines and get to the heart of an issue – in this case, charities’ use of data.

The focus of the documentary, Barbara, was a regular donor who was clearly passionate about the causes that were closest to her, but understandably bewildered by the number of fundraising requests she received beyond those from her chosen charities. This is not an unusual view. Barbara’s concern is echoed by many of the people who contact the Fundraising Regulator every day and who use the Fundraising Preference Service to suppress charities they do not wish to hear from.

The decision by several charities to talk candidly on the programme about their fundraising was important. It provided some welcome reassurance that organisations are taking people’s wishes seriously in their existing data-gathering practices. Yet if that is the case, a question remains: why do many people still feel so puzzled as to why particular charities contact them?

Several charities on the programme rightly dismissed the unclear data-selling and sharing practices of old, but noticeably little was said about what had happened to the historic data that was collected by these old sharing methods. It was telling that, asked to disclose the basis for processing the data in the first place, some admitted that they were relying on consents going back to 2008.

This suggests the sustained use of questionable historic data and a failure to refresh consents with individuals. This creates problems for the reputations of many charities and, unfortunately, ends up tarring the whole sector. It perpetuates the sense that the misuse of personal information is out of control.

The General Data Protection Regulation comes into force on 25 May 2018. It will require collectors to be more transparent about their data-sharing practices. It will also tighten the rules on those using consent to support their practices, meaning that people will have to provide explicit and unambiguous permission for charities and companies to collect their data.

In preparation for this, we are urging all charities to audit the personal data they currently hold against the new GDPR requirements. This includes how and when they collected the data from people, what basis they are using to justify contacting them and what the individual was told at the time of collection.

Many charities are understandably fearful of reassessing their historic data. Like any house-cleaning operation, it is likely to mean discarding or replacing those things that are out of date and accepting that some long-cherished items were never really used effectively in the first place. But just as a house-clean tends to leave more space to devote to what’s important, so a database refresh can deepen relationships with genuine supporters by ensuring their wishes are continuously respected over the long term.

Barbara’s story is a timely reminder not to take those wishes for granted.

Stephen Service is policy manager at the Fundraising Regulator

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