Following the Etherington fundraising review this summer, there has been one thing keeping me awake at night: the proposed Fundraising Preference Service (FPS). I raised it as the single biggest issue on the day the report was published (to both Sir Stuart and the Radio 4 PM audience) and my concerns have only grown since. The likes of Joe Saxton, Adrian Sargeant, Ian MacQuillin and many others have expanded on the reasons why an FPS could have serious unintended consequences for our beneficiaries and our donors.
Yet still the minister for civil society, Rob Wilson, is insisting it will happen – and if we don’t do it ourselves, then the government will do it to us, but worse. At the recent NCVO-convened summit, when I asked the man charged with introducing the FPS – George Kidd – whether he would proceed with the FPS even if the working group found it unworkable in practice, he stated that he would not recommend something unworkable, but, he was already convinced (48hours into the job) it would work. Karl Wilding of NCVO has stated several times that he has seen proposals that he believes are workable.
So as a thought experiment, I decided to consider what could a workable FPS with no unintended negative consequences (for donors or beneficiaries) actually look like?
What follows is not an endorsement of the proposed FPS, but more food for thought.
The FPS were a web-based service operating along the lines following 17 possibilities.
The tone, content and promotion of the FPS is resolutely pro-fundraising.
Celebrating the impact charities are able to have as a result of public support. Upholding fundraising as a great virtue that we should feel proud to celebrate in our country. Framing the FPS as a tool to help you support the charities you want to support in the way you want to support them. In other words, rather than encouraging people to avoid the ‘necessary evil’, championing fundraising as a force for good. The FPS as advocate, not critic.
2 A simple register based on individual donor subscription
The FPS related to individuals only.
Unlike other flawed preference services, the FPS does not relate to household or family but to named individuals. This would be based on two key pieces of data: surname, and preference contact details. The onus is on the donor to provide the data that relates to the preference they have selected. The FPS must make provision for people with multiple contact titles (e.g. home and work signatures). Contact details will be requested based on channel preference – if a donor wishes to be excluded from mail, they should provide the postal address where they receive mail. Likewise for telephone or email. When a donor’s details change (e.g. they move, or get a new phone number) it is up to them to update their information on the FPS – this is all transparently communicated on the FPS.
3 Donor-only registration
It is only donors that can register preferences on the FPS.
So unscrupulous businesses or disgruntled family members cannot sign up customers/relatives. We need to avoid the abuse suffered by the likes of Telephone Preference Service (TPS), where companies have bulk-subscribed customers. If vulnerable people have appointed guardians to manage their affairs, then they would be able to execute their wishes. But as a first principle, people can only use the FPS to manage their own charitable financial support, and should not be able to easily permit others to opt-them out.
4 Relates only to communications in which the primary or sole purpose is to solicit financial support
The FPS focused exclusively on opt out preferences for direct fundraising asks.
To be clear, when registering a preference on the service, this will only apply to communications in which the sole purpose (i.e. the only thing it does) or primary purpose (i.e. it may achieve a number of things, from awareness to thanking, but its principal focus…) is to solicit income in direct response to that communication.
Therefore, newsletters, campaign asks, thank you messages, information about future legacy bequests, are all exempt from the FPS. The service is clearly about ‘fundraising’ not other forms of charity engagement.
While further guidance and examples should be available, there will be two simple signifiers – to a reasonable person:
- does the communication appear to be focused primarily on requesting a direct financial response?
- does it provide a mechanism for responding financially?
5 Differentiates by relationship
When you enter the FPS, you are given the option to choose between warm and cold relationships.
The service requests up front: do you wish to opt out of fundraising asks from charities that you currently support, or only those charities that you have not supported before? So donors can opt-out of cold solicitation, without this prejudicing their existing charity support. If they select ‘cold-only’ then they will not be excluded from charity programmes where they are an existing donor.
6 Differentiates by channel
Donors could decide which channels they particularly wish to be excluded from.
Donors might indicate that they only wish to be opted-out of telemarketing. Or only email. The FPS should be about donor ‘preferences’ – so it’s not blanket exclusion. Of course, a donor could select as many or as few channels as they wish – a total ‘reset’ is simple and possible.
The FPS will remain distinct from other preference services – if a donor opts out of telemarketing contact, this does not automatically register them for TPS; if a donor signs up to TPS, this does not automatically means they are opted out on FPS. Charities will need to screen against all preference services, and if a preference is not consistently stated, respect the opt-out record (notwithstanding any preferences they have indicated personally to the charity, as below).
7 Charities can contact FPS donors regarding their preferences
Charities can contact their donors regarding their preferences post-FPS registration.
When a donor subscribes to the service, they are only exempting themselves from direct fundraising asks, not from any other form of communication – and may only be exempting themselves via specified channels too. Charities will still be able to contact their donors for other purposes, and this will include administrative communications in which the charity seeks to clarify donor preferences.
For example, if a donor registers with FPS, the charity might contact them to clarify that they will be respecting their decision and provide them the means to either override their preference in regard to their individual relationship, or the means to do so in the future if they so wish.
It is reasonable over time for charities to return to donors to clarify whether their preference wishes have changed too, in order to ensure they are always providing the right communications in the right way. Charities will be expected to follow the codes of practice in regard to undue pressure – i.e. they should not pressurise donors to override preferences.
8 Does not override pre-existing financial arrangements
The FPS does not exempt charities from continuing with prearranged financial commitments – either the transactional arrangement, or communication about that particular form of support.
In other words, if a donor is a member or regular giving supporter (e.g. they have a Direct Debit or Standing Order in place) then registration with the FPS will not require the donor or the charity to cancel their regular gift/subscription, and the charity can continue to communicate specifically about that regular gift/subscription, including contact regarding renewal and cancellation. Of course, the donor can contact the charity, or their bank, at any time to cancel this form of the support, but this will not be managed through the FPS
9 Can be overridden by the donor for individual charities
It is very easy for donors to opt back into contact with charities while remaining registered on the FPS.
Donors can give permission to individual charities to override any preferences registered on the FPS. Charities can register this opt-in/FPS-override, which will remain in place unless the donor contacts them directly to say otherwise. When donors select any of the FPS preferences, they will be encouraged to contact their charities to let them know if they would like them to be overridden for their relationship.
10 Easy for the donor to remove themselves at any time
It was very easy to remove yourself from the FPS.
A concern with existing preference services is that it’s easier to register than it is to unsubscribe. The FPS should make it simple to remove yourself, or change your stated preferences, at any time. Charities can inform donors how to unsubscribe or change their preferences, and it will be evident from the FPS’s home page. Donors should never be in doubt that they are registered, the choices they’ve made should be transparent and easy to recognise, and they can opt out of the FPS whenever they choose.
11 Transparent for donors about consequences
The FPS educates and informs donors about the implications of any choices they make to change their contact from charities.
Whatever options the donor selects on the FPS, it is crystal clear what will happen as a result, with multiple opportunities to change their mind and/or take a different path. This should be visible, up front (i.e. before decisions are concluded) and in line with the pro-fundraising tone previously mentioned.
12 A portal for charities to cross-reference data selections per campaign (rather than per database)
The FPS provided a simple online tool for checking permissions per campaign.
Charities don’t need to run their whole database past the service for every planned fundraising ask. Instead, if they are conducting a telemarketing campaign, they use the portal to cross-reference their data selection and flag any donors who should be excluded according to their stated preferences. The charities can update their central databases accordingly, but are advised to run their campaign file each time they conduct a campaign.
13 Applies to all charities, regardless of size
There were no exemptions for any charities.
It would be tempting to exempt smaller charities, either due to perceived disproportionate burden or unfairness (that the majority of bad practice was driven by larger charities). Yet there isn’t an inherent connection between size and practice (lots of big charities have been wholly donor-focused; small charities are perfectly capable of undesirable fundraising practice) and the FPS shouldn’t discriminate if it starts from the perspective of the donor.
This means it is also designed to ensure minimal bureaucratic burden for any charity that engages with the service and is affordable for all charities that fundraise.
14 Is affordable for all charities
The FPS had simple but affordable payment mechanisms based on usage of the service.
This might consist of two main options. Charities can pay per usage, with the fee based on payment per data record. Or, charities can pay an annual subscription and use the service as many times, with as much volume, as they like within their subscription.
This should be designed to ensure small charities and/or charities contacting low volumes will have affordable access, and at the same time, those charities with larger supporter bases are able to still affordably and regularly contact their donors according to their preferences.
So for example, if a donor enjoys regular fundraising communication, this should not be inhibited by the cost of the FPS. Alternatively, the FPS is entirely funded by the government and does not impact on beneficiaries at all.
15 Compliance is managed reactively by the new Fundraising Regulator
The means by which compliance with the FPS is managed by the new regulator on the basis of abuse and complaint (rather than proactive and costly policing of the sector).
In other words, all charities are expected to comply with the FPS. If a charity does not respect the preference requests captured by the service, and the donor complains to the regulator, then they will be subject to penalty. However, there is no expensive and bureaucratic policing regime that requires every charity to demonstrate compliance every time they contact their donors.
16 A service of last resort
The FPS pointed donors in the first instance to contact their charities.
While the FPS can help you manage your preferences, it would strongly encourage donors first to get in touch directly with their charities to raise matters of concern and indicate their preferences. The FPS is presented as a last resort, if you’re unsure and/or unable to provide your fundraising preferences to the charities themselves. The FPS makes clear that typically donors wouldn’t expect to use the service.
17 Connects donors with their charities
The FPS makes it easier for donors to find about more about their charities and ways to contact them.
Charities are given the facility to upload information about their work and how they can be contacted as well as links through to their site and supporter care teams. If FPS is a last resort, then it should provide a simple platform for donors to engage with their charities directly first.
Putting it all together
The FPS focuses on maximising the potential for charities to engage donors in fundraising while ensuring preferences are respected, minimising bureaucratic burden and cost, promoting the power and importance of charitable giving to change the world, unafraid to position itself as a last resort that should ultimately be a redundant unnecessary service.
Will it work?
So – is that workable while avoiding unintended consequences? Would it answer all of my concerns?
Sadly, I still conclude – no. I fear it would remain too complex, too costly, be open to abuse (particularly by anti-charity sentiment from politicians and the media) and fail to meet the actual needs of our donors. Administratively and technically it remains a challenge and as I’ve assumed it will be solely web-based, it doesn’t work for people who are not online either.
It will ultimately still mean that fewer people in our country benefit from the joy of giving and it will reduce the impact of our sector. Let’s be under no illusion: the FPS will reduce voluntary income, which will cost lives.
I am not converted.
But thinking through the options, I did recognise some of the ways in which a Fundraising Preference Service could be, if not good, then less bad. It doesn’t inevitably have to be one single reset button that prevents donors (existing and prospective) from supporting any charities in any way ever again.
I still feel the best way forward is to put the launch of any FPS on hold until the new Fundraising Regulator has successfully been introduced, the changes to our code of practice and other recommendations from the Fundraising Review are given time to take hold, and then identify what, if anything, is still required (ideally through co-creation and piloting with actual donors).
But if our sector is too weak to win this argument, at least I can see some potential to avoid the very worst of the unintended consequences.
- Joe Jenkins is director of engagement (fundraising, communications and activism) at Friends of the Earth, and a member of Rogare’s advisory panel.