It’s September 2017 and there is a massive disaster somewhere in the world, something on the scale of the Asian Tsunami of 2004. You need to gear up your fundraising for a massive drive to raise the extra millions you need to provide emergency relief. One snag. You are not allowed to contact a huge number, perhaps a majority, perhaps the vast majority, of the people who might give to your appeal.
This is because two years from now, there might be in operation a Fundraising Preference Service (FPS) – proposed in Sir Stuart Etherington’s review of self-regulation of fundraising that was published today.
Under the proposals, any person would be able to register with the FPS, and then no charity would be able to contact them to ask them for a donation via direct marketing again. NCVO says the FPS would act as a ‘reset’ button for people who think they receive too much fundraising communications. They can opt out of all charities at a stroke without the “inconvenience” of having to contact each one individually.
This will override any existing permissions for charities to contact them so that once a donor registers with the FPS, any charity they currently give to can no longer ask them for further donations – no upgrades, no Christmas appeal, no raffle tickets, no emergency appeal. And it would kill stewardship programmes – what’s the point of spending money sending people non-ask comms if you can’t recoup that investment by asking them for money at the end of the process? People who registered with the FPS would very likely just never hear from their charities again.
Of course, this doesn’t only apply to low value individuals giving; it could wipe out prospect research at a stroke, making finding major donor prospects even more difficult and time consuming than it already is (but I guess that all depends on how you define ‘fundraising communication’ – perhaps inviting someone to a fundraising event won’t count).
‘It is inconvenient having to contact all the charities that are sending you letters and calling you. However, relative to the lot of beneficiaries, it’s not all that inconvenient at all (dare I say that it’s a First World Problem).’
There is a lot that’s quite good in Sir Stuart’s review relating to the establishment of the new regulator in place of the FRSB (a bit harsh, but can see the reasoning), which will also take over responsibility for developing the code from the IoF (I would have preferred a new body along the lines of the Committee for Fundraising Practice, but this should work). NCVO says the committee at the new regulator that will write the code will also contain “fundraising expertise”, and this must strike an “appropriate balance” with “donor and public representation”, so let’s see how this plays out and just what this balance is.
Inevitably though, I’m going to focus on what’s not so good in the code. Partly that’s because the good bits would probably have been good anyway. It doesn’t matter who writes the code of practice as long as fundraisers – who are the repositories of our sector’s professional knowledge – make the major contribution to it (so let’s see how this works out in detail). It doesn’t matter who regulates the code provided a) they do it well and b) it isn’t the government (which is a matter of wider democracy, as the government has no business telling the third sector what it can and can’t do).
If you don’t ask, you don’t get – duh!
But the less good bits have the potential to be quite bad. They show a real lack of understanding about what is at fundraising’s core – that if you don’t ask people, they won’t give. And it appears as if this recommendation has been made to satisfy current public and political opinion that something has to be done about intrusive fundraising – even though this is only a bigger issue than last year because people have been so regularly primed to think about: if Olive Cooke hadn’t committed suicide in May (fundraising has not been implicated her death by her family or the coroner), none of this would have followed.
Fundraising is not like other forms of marketing. In a nutshell, most marketing tries to get you to buy something for yourself so that the marketer’s profits will increase. If the marketer is prevented from marketing to you, but you still want the thing they are selling (a new car, a holiday, a curry delivered to your flat at 11.45 on a Friday evening), you’ll probably go and find it yourself (if you don’t have restaurant flyers around the house because you have a ‘no junk mail’ sign on your front door, then you’ll search online for the nearest Indian, won’t you?).
Fundraising on the other hand tries to get you to buy something for someone else. But if you don’t know that other person needs the thing the charity wants you to buy for them – be it a mosquito net, a vaccine, a guide dog, or research into a terrible disease – then you are not very likely to go and find it out yourself.
Everyone knows that most people give because they are asked to do so. Academic and market research confirms this time and again. Market research by the Institute of Fundraising a few years ago put the figure at 66 per cent (seems rather low to me), while academic research has placed it as high as 86 per cent (see p23 of this literature review by René Bekkers and Pamela Wiepking).
The proposal for the FPS has the potential to remove whole swathes of potential donors from within the reach of charities (and through them their beneficiaries). Moreover, it reinforces the notion that fundraising is somehow an irrelevance because if you want to give, then you will do so without having to be asked (but you won’t).
Fundraising as a service for donors (but not beneficiaries)
It also suggests that fundraising is a service for donors, a service they can avail themselves of to discharge whatever kind of philanthropic duty they believe they have. If you don’t wish to avail yourself of such a service that allows you to donate, then you should not have to endure requests for you use it, in the same way that if you don’t want to go on a foreign holiday, you shouldn’t be badgered by travel companies.
‘The proposal for the FPS reinforces the notion that fundraising is somehow an irrelevance because if you want to give, then you will do so without having to be asked (but you won’t).’
What this conception of fundraising ignores is that while it can provide this service for donors, it is also a service for beneficiaries that seeks to fund the services they need. The two are not equal. A charity could fundraise without providing a service to donors (probably not as well is if it did); but it could not exist if it provided a service to donors at the expense of fulfilling its role of raising money for beneficiaries.
The FPS proposal emphasises donor service to the exclusion of beneficiary service. In other words this proposal is ethically unbalanced as it does not adequately balance the needs and rights of donors with the needs and rights of beneficiaries. Donors quite clearly take priority.
Just look at the language used by NCVO:
It would mean the public could opt out of fundraising requests from multiple charities without the inconvenience of contacting them separately.
Looked at in isolation, it is inconvenient having to contact all the charities that are sending you letters and calling you (less inconvenient at having to unsubscribe from their emails, but still a bit of a chore). However, relative to the lot of beneficiaries, it’s not all that inconvenient at all (dare I say that it’s a First World Problem).
The risk of not establishing the FPS is that some people are inconvenienced by receiving too many fundraising requests and some people will feel some kind of guilt about having to decline some, perhaps most of, those requests. The risk of establishing the FPS is that charities will not be able to raise the money they need to provide services for their beneficiaries and so those lives will be seriously inconvenienced.
Disproportionate, inconsistent, untargeted
As a form of regulation, the FPS doesn’t comply with the five principles of better regulation (see p25) as established by the Better Regulation Task Force. These are:
Proportionality Regulators should intervene only when necessary. Remedies should be appropriate to the risk posed, and costs identified and minimised.
Accountability Regulators should be able to justify decisions and be subject to public scrutiny.
Consistency Rules and standards must be joined up and implemented fairly.
Transparency Regulators should be open, and keep regulations simple and user-friendly.
Targeting Regulation should be focused on the problem and minimise side effects.
The FPS fails the criteria of proportionality, consistency and targeting.
As explained above, the risks to establishing the FPS are not minimised and, taken across the whole of humanity – not just the donating (or maybe non-donating) British public – they do not outweigh the benefits.
It is not consistent or fair. If members of the public can opt out of one type of marketing in its entirety – rather than opt out a particular marketing channel as they can through the preference services for telephone and mail – then why should other sectors be allowed to contact people with impunity? As a matter of consistency, we should allow people to opt out entirely of receiving all commercial marketing and marketing from political parties and educational establishments.
‘The problem nut we have to crack is not a small one. But the proposed sledgehammer of the Fundraising Preference Service is way, way too big for the job. In fact it’s not a sledgehammer; it’s a pile driver.’
And it is not targeted, not really. Some people might feel they receive too much charity marketing to the point that it is genuinely inconveniencing their lives, people such as Olive Cooke, perhaps, though from what I have read about her, I doubt that she was the type of person who would have signed up to such as monster as the Fundraising Preference Service. I suspect that the FPS would be used not just by people who really are on the receiving end of such a deluge of fundraising material that it was making their lives a misery; but more by people who want to spare themselves the difficult choice of deciding how to respond to a donation request, and the guilt and cognitive dissonance that results when they say no.
If you think the FPS is a good idea, please think again
NCVO has said that (some) members of the public are unhappy with the level of intrusion that fundraising brings and that something had to be done to redress that dissatisfaction. Yet there are other ways to address this problem, some of which Rogare will be exploring through our projects on public engagement and professional ethics, others will be explored though the likes of the Burnett-Pegram commission on the donor experience, or could be achieved by more polycentric self-regulation as exemplified by the Public Fundraising [Regulatory] Association (which is now going to merge with the Institute at a time when PFRAs are being set up in Australia and USA to complement the one that already exists in New Zealand).
The problem nut we have to crack through these initiatives is not a small one. But the proposed sledgehammer of the Fundraising Preference Service is way, way too big for the job. In fact it’s not a sledgehammer; it’s a pile driver.
I implore anyone who thinks this is a good idea, especially those with the power and authority to make it a reality, to reconsider their position. This is a behemoth with the potential to cause massive damage to the lives of charity beneficiaries. And once it is built, you won’t be able to take it down.
Charities will not succeed in their missions if they are prevented from asking people to fund those missions.
- Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.