Oxfam has been forced to apologise after an investigation by industry regulator the Fundraising Standards Board ruled that the charity and its agencies – Listen and the Street Academy – flouted regulations by placing undue pressure on members of the public to donate.
The probe was sparked by allegations in The Mail on Sunday, under the headline “Oxfam Targets Donors Aged 98”.
Although the FRSB found no evidence that the charity or agencies expressly targeted elderly supporters, describing the newspaper headline as “misleading” and “untrue”, it ruled that several clauses of the UK’s Code of Fundraising Practice had been breached.
The “two step” campaign was structured so that an initial approach on the street asking passers-by to donate via SMS (delivered by face-to-face fundraising agency The Street Academy) was followed by a telephone call from one of Listen’s fundraisers, asking donors to confirm whether they wished to Gift Aid their donation and convert to a regular gift.
In delivering this campaign, the FRSB ruled that Listen had an “inflexible” approach, requiring its fundraisers to always ask for funds three times per call and refusing to take people off its contact list unless they used one of three specific phrases. It deemed this practice as constiuting “undue pressure”.
The investigation also confirmed that a fundraiser working for The Street Academy failed to deliver the required solicitation statement, indicating that she was paid and employed by a third party. She also did not make it clear how the supporter’s contact details would be used in the future.
While Oxfam had reasonable procedures in place to monitor Listen’s activities and the campaign’s telephone fundraising scripts were compliant with fundraising standards, it does not escape unscathed from the investigation.
The FRSB criticised the charity for inconsistent management of the campaign, meaning that sufficient checks were not carried out to ensure ongoing compliance by the telephone fundraising agency.
Additionally, Oxfam failed to ensure that a clear opt-out message was included in SMS text responses to donations; a mandatory requirement of the Code.
FRSB chair Andrew Hind said: “We found no evidence to substantiate The Mail on Sunday`s assertion that Oxfam was targeting elderly supporters in this campaign. However, having identified several breaches of the Code, we are concerned that this campaign was non-compliant in several areas and that some fault lay with each of the three organisations involved.”
This case has also been referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office to assess whether there has been any breach of the Data Protection Act.
Responding to the report, Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring said: “We are pleased that the FRSB has cleared us of the most serious accusation made by the Mail on Sunday. We have always been clear that their headline claim that we targeted elderly or vulnerable people in our fundraising is, as the FRSB has found, not only misleading but completely untrue.
“Nevertheless, we recognise that the Mail on Sunday highlighted practices that did not meet the high standards we expect of those fundraising on our behalf and that were not picked up by our own monitoring systems. That is why we quickly halted work with Listen and have already acted voluntarily to strengthen our monitoring of fundraising agencies.
“Our supporters are the lifeblood of our organisation and we apologise once again for failing to ensure this fundraising campaign met the high standards people quite rightly expect of us. We hope the public are reassured by the fact that, on our own initiative, we have already implemented 15 improvements set out by the FRSB – including those to ensure that we meet both the relevant regulations and good practice standards on opt outs. We will of course consider how we can strengthen our monitoring further in light of this report.”
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