Could the FPS actually work?

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Yesterday the working group on the Fundraising Preference Service (FPS) published their initial report which sets out their “top-line thinking in relation to fundraising and other forms of communication, and the practicality of addressing different communication channels.”.

I have set out my concerns about the FPS before. I don’t think this is the best way to deal with the challenges that the sector faces in finding appropriate ways to communicate with actual and potential donors and I think it will, along with a series of other changes already in place, result in significant net loss of charity income which will mean serious reductions in the services delivered by charities to beneficiaries. I think in (possibly) reducing some donor annoyance we will manage to harm much more seriously vulnerable people who rely on charitable support. That makes no sense to me.

But we are where we are. The FPS working group are a good bunch of people who include, refreshingly, actual fundraisers and they are clearly taking a pragmatic and thoughtful approach to creating a preference scheme that might be workable.

So what do I think of their initial thinking. There are a number of considerations;

What channels are covered?

A key issue is to what communications channels will the FPS apply to. The working group are quite clear,  confining the scope of the scheme to (addressed) mail, telephone and email. Telephone includes mobile and therefore presumably text and any other messaging.

FPS will apply at an individual level, not a household level.

So, to be clear, registering for the FPS means that the scheme will only apply to those contact details an individual has registered. So if an individual has multiple addresses or phone numbers or changes contact details, they will only be registered with the FPS if they notify the preference service. And many forms of fundraising, eg face to face, social media, unaddressed mail and inserts will not be covered.

This is entirely pragmatic and it is almost impossible to see how the scheme could be implemented practically beyond mail, phone and email. But it rather makes a nonsense of  the term Fundraising Preference Service. I think the disjunct between what the scheme actually does and what donors will think it does will become increasingly problematic over time.

What communications does this apply to?

The working group have attempted to distinguish between fundraising communications and other charitable communications. This is a particularly slippery area but they’ve had a decent stab. What they say is;

We propose that the FPS should apply to fundraising communications, ie communications carried on for gain and wholly or primarily engaged in soliciting or otherwise procuring money or other property for charitable, benevolent or philanthropic purposes.

Accordingly, registration with the FPS should not prevent other forms of communication between organisations and individuals where the purpose of the communication clearly is not a solicitation.

In particular, FPS registration should not prevent the following.  

Communications for the effective administration of any direct debit or other financial arrangements that exist at the point when an individual registers with the FPS. It is essential however that such correspondence is not used as a means to ask for additional or higher contributions.  

Messages of thanks for donations received, on the understanding such communications do not then take the form of some further ‘ask’.  

Communications including information about the organisation’s activities and how to get involved, newsletters about participation events and sponsorship opportunities.

There are number of problems with this formulation. The term “communications carried on for gain” is at best incongruous in a discussion of not for profit activities and at worse, deeply ambiguous. It would be better removed already, leaving us with wholly or primarily engaged in soliciting (money/property) which seems something we could work with. I would however add, “directly” to this as one could argue that all or at least most communications between a charity and its supporters have a primary purpose which is generating or sustaining contributions. However, the distinguishing feature ought to be whether the communication has a direct ask via some form of response mechanism.

I think the list of exclusions is very helpful. It is unclear though whether contacting someone who has cancelled or lowered their regular gift to ask them to reinstate it is prevented or not (I would say not but does that mean you could contact someone later?).

The group has asked for comments whether the scope of communications prevented should cover raffles and lotteries and trading activities. It’s difficult to answer this definitively. It’s very hard to see how a trading promotion (which could be for absolutely anything) sent out by a limited company can be covered by a fundraising scheme. But will donors see it like this? Raffles and lotteries are arguably more recognisably fundraising activities but can you logically  include them and exclude trading?

Signing up for the scheme

The working group have talked about sign up for the service being via website or call centre. I see absolutely no one paying for the substantial costs of a manned call centre for this service so I’d explicitly say this scheme should be web only.

I’d also explicitly prevent individuals signing up on behalf of others unless they are their legal guardians or have a power of attorney. I can’t see anything else being enforceable. While everyone is concerned about protecting the vulnerable, it is impossible for any third party service to determine who is and who is or is not vulnerable and we need to rely on the existing safeguards of UK law.

Exemptions

The scheme would be much less of a blunt instrument if individuals were able to exclude their favourite charities from the blanket communication ban. Or just to exclude particularly irritating charities.

This wouldn’t be hard to do in an online sign up process if a look up against the Charity Commission database was provided. The costs of paying for such functionality might be something that charities were prepared to fund. I don’t agree that providing such a feature would make sign up more burdensome, it would be a step that those people who genuinely wanted to block everyone could skip.

Relationship with other preference services

The group says that the FPS should not replace other existing preference schemes, MPS and TPS and charities will still need to check against these databases too.  But what they ought to add is that the same definitions of what constitutes a fundraising/sales call ought to apply to all. The ICO should be asked to accept the final FPS definitions for the schemes they enforce.

And if the suggestion to allow individuals to exempt specific charities from the communications ban ought to apply to the other schemes too. So if  someone has both given their telephone data to a charity and said they want to receive information from that charity via the FPS, the charity should be able to call them.

The working group on the Fundraising Preference Service ought to be thanked for wrestling with the many problems that implementing the FPS throws up. While I still disagree with the basic premise of the scheme, the group are doing their best to make sense of it. I’d encourage everyone with an interest to participate in their consultation, Please send your thoughts to George Kidd george.kidd@fpswg.org.uk by 31st march.

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