A volte-face by Pell & Bales on 'admin' calls

The practice of calling 'don't call me' supporters to check whether they still do not want to be contacted by charities came under scrutiny at the International Fundraising Congress. Kaye Wiggins reports

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The controversial practice of calling lapsed supporters to check whether they still do not want to be contacted by charities came under intense scrutiny last week following the International Fundraising Congress.

Karl Holweger, chief executive of telephone fundraising agency Pell & Bales, said at the conference in the Netherlands that making 'administrative' calls to check whether people still did not want to be contacted could be an effective way of raising funds.

After Thirdsector.co.uk reported his remarks, which sparked a heated online debate, Holweger issued a statement justifying the practice.

But when Third Sector asked him to comment on the view of the Information Commissioner's Office that calling people who had asked not to be contacted was a breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003, he issued a new statement apologising for having advocated the practice and pledging that his company would desist straight away.

The practice can be lucrative: according to Holweger, about two thirds of people contacted in this way changed their minds and allowed telephone fundraisers to call them again in future to ask for donations, and only 8 per cent objected to being called.

But the Fundraising Standards Board condemned the practice. Alistair McLean, chief executive of the organisation, said calling people who did not want to be called was "absolutely unacceptable".

He said: "Conduct such as this is an abuse of the privileged position charities hold in the eyes of donors. It is an appalling example of bad practice."

Gordon Michie, development director at telephone fundraising agency Relationship Marketing, said he understood why Pell & Bales had made such calls. "People's circumstances do change, and we need to find a way of re-inspiring them to give," he said. "That is probably what lay behind their approach."

But he said his firm did not contact people in this way. "If a supporter asks not to be contacted by phone, their wishes should be respected," he said.

An ICO spokeswoman told Third Sector: "Organisations should not disguise marketing calls or calls intended to persuade people to agree to receive marketing calls as 'admin' calls that would not otherwise have been made.

"We would be concerned if organisations were making these types of calls to individuals who had previously asked not to be contacted."

In his statement, Holweger said: "It had been my understanding that this was compliant with data protection regulations and not breaking any law.

"However, if the Information Commissioner's Office is now stating that this courtesy call is breaking the law, then, as chief executive of a reputable organisation, I will ensure that with immediate effect we cease discussing this with our clients."

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