The one thing you can’t accuse Sir Stuart Etherington and his fundraising review team of is tardiness. In record time, two weeks for taking evidence and five weeks for deliberation and write up we have the conclusions of what has been described as the most important review of fundraising in the UK for decades.
It might take the Chilcot Enquiry seven years and counting to tell us whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea but our political establishment can really gets its skates on when the serious matter of whether charities are sending out too many mailings is involved.
So after such a hurry, what have we got?
The report, “Regulating Fundraising for the Future” is primarily,as its title indicates about fundraising regulation. Despite the torrent of media coverage about charity fundraising over the summer, public interest hasn’t extended to this review it seems. A mere 27 members of the public contributed submissions. In fact, not that many organisations did, there were only 119 written submissions in total, considering there are over 160,000 registered charities in England and Wales alone that’s not an exactly overwhelming evidence base.
Much weight was apparently given to what the NCVO describes as a “substantial, thorough and detailed” dossier from the Daily Mail from its investigations into charities and call centres. To my knowledge there has been no independent investigation of any of these allegations although we know that newspapers including the Mail have been guilty of selective and inaccurate reporting around , for instance, the death of Olive Cooke.
The meat of the document is given to a detailed and, it has to be said, pretty dry review of fundraising self-regulation. No one, it seems, including the regulators themselves have a good word to say about the current messy system. The review makes a series of recommendations about reforming and streamlining the current mix of regulators with over-lapping remits and these would appear to be broadly sensible.
Whether having a simpler system with a somewhat better resourced single regulator will make all that much difference to public confidence in fundraising is another matter entirely. The review simply assumes that it will.
Where the document becomes more controversial and,potentially, highly damaging to the practice of fundraising in the UK, it on proposed changes to how charities can communicate with donors. There are two main proposals. One is that charities effectively move to an”opt in” approach for all donor communications. This is supported by the idea of a central fundraising preference scheme which people can join and charities must check before communicating with these individuals.
This is where the speed of the enquiry process and the very limited and partial evidential base that has been consulted becomes a real issue. Both of these ideas sound reasonable. Both are fraught with enormous practical considerations, which if they are not adequately addressed by properly knowledgeable people, could have extremely damaging implications for almost all types of fundraising.
The opt in idea first. There is no doubt that the trend of EU data protection legislation is towards people opting into rather than out of communications and this is probably in the longer term unavoidable. But how this operates in each fundraising channel will be very important. How is an opt in defined, how is this described to a supporter and how is it interpreted? How long does it last? All these points will need to be addressed properly otherwise, whole channels of fundraising communication will very quickly become unviable. Mail and telephone first.
And the fundraising preference scheme is even less thought through. So a central register that anyone can register with that any charity wanting to do any form of fundraising in any channel needs to check against before they can start? Really? There are so many problems with this that it’s hard to know where to start. What constitutes fundraising in this context? How does this apply to all channels? Mail, telephone, email, you could see (although there are enormous data issues, how do you deal with multiple email addresses for example). But face to face? Door to door? What about digital, paid search or retargeting? Social media?
The NCVO have stated that this will not apply to all charity communications but only fundraising ones. How do you define that? The NCVO say that it’s everything that has an ask on it. What about a newsletter with a coupon on the back? An invite to a charity ball? And who decides? My experience is that most supporters assume that anything send from a charity is asking for money.
As I understand it, the idea for a central database comes from seeking to protect vulnerable people. But presumably someone with dementia isn’t going to sign up to a service like this. So does that mean others can sign up on their behalf? How would that work?
The key question is now what happens next. By announcing a fundraising preference scheme, rather than, say a vulnerable person’s register, the enquiry team have created a monster even if what they intended was something more modest. Even if its scope is initially limited, there will be inexorable pressure to widen it.
And what will be the cost? Well nobody knows because no one has bothered to do any proper research on the impact of any of these proposals. But individual giving using direct marketing methods accounts for something around £4bn of UK charity income (there is no one undisputed figure). The potential impact of changes which radically reduce the number of people that can be asked for money and the frequency will therefore go into the hundreds of millions of pounds a year, perhaps higher. And this of course won’t be the charities that principally suffer it will be their causes and beneficiaries.
I fear the haste of this review will be something that we will all have cause to regret in the years to come.