It’s fair to say that 2015 has been such a tough year for charities that even the term annus horribilis doesn’t quite cut it; not that they are entirely without blame.
It all started in May with the suicide of 92-year-old Olive Cooke, said to be the UK’s longest serving poppy seller. The ensuing press coverage – sparked by her family’s claim that she had been inundated with fundraising mailings – triggered a chain of events that has seen the biggest shake-up of charity marketing for a generation.
Even the outgoing Fundraising Standards Board chairman Colin Lloyd conceded that the sector was “out of control”. More than 600 jobs went within weeks as two telemarketing agencies folded, while many charities were accused of using illegal marketing data to fuel their campaigns.
One of the key factors was that the Institute of Fundraising’s telemarketing guidance was two years out of date, forcing the Information Commissioner’s Office to re-release the rules it had first introduced back in 2013, which stipulate that all data – even a charity’s own database – must be screened against the Telephone Preference Service before a campaign can begin.
Many cried foul, charity bosses even tried to blame their agencies; then came Sir Stuart Etherington’s Regulating Fundraising for the Future report, backed by the Government. It recommended sweeping changes, including a move to opt-in only, marketing bans for charities which break the rules, the introduction of the Fundraising Preference Service (FPS) and even the threat of taking legal action against persistent offenders.
There were accusations that his proposals were a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and even Information Commissioner Christopher Graham warned of a charity witch-hunt.
The predictions of what the new measures would cost the sector soon followed. The RNLI reckoned moving to opt-in only would rip a £36m hole in its finances; another estimate claimed it would cost the sector £2bn by 2020. More worryingly, the REaD Group put the figure closer to £5bn a year.
When push came to shove, however, many of the more draconian measures were dropped, although the threat of introducing statutory regulation for the sector remains, amid claims it is in the last chance saloon.
A new regulator is imminent, with Lord Michael Grade as its interim chairman. The chief executive role could well be a poisoned chalice; and it will be a brave person to take it on given the fact that fresh claims about fundraising malpractice continue to be exposed.
The new boss will certainly have his or her work cut out; they will have to rebuild trust, get all charities onboard, stamp out miscreants, and ensure fundraisers are no longer seen as money-grabbers, to name just a few of the tasks. It is a job that makes the 12 Labours of Hercules look like a picnic…
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