Charity reforms: a sledge hammer to crack a nut?

CharlieThey say charity begins at home, but six weeks on from Sir Stuart Etherington’s Regulating Fundraising for the Future report, this particular home is in such a state that even TV’s “Too Posh to Wash” experts Kim and Aggie would struggle to clear up this mess.
Of course, there will be many people – and not only Daily Mail readers – who will believe they’ve had it coming. After all, whether you are vulnerable or not, incessant nuisance calls and pleading mailshots never go down well.
And following a summer from hell for charity marketers, no lesser luminary than Colin Lloyd – the former president of the DMA, who as chair of the Fundraising Standards Board has been the sector’s chief enforcer for the past five years – conceded that fundraising was out of control.
(What he didn’t realise at the time was that the Institute of Fundraising’s rules on telemarketing were two years out of date.)
Almost daily we read stories about marketing misdemeanors, initially it was claimed that Britain’s longest serving poppy seller – the 92-year-old Olive Cooke – had been driven to suicide by charities mailing her and phoning into submission (later dismissed by the coroner at her inquest who confirmed that she had suffered from depression for years).
Still, the damage was done and given the strength of public opinion about “evil” charities, it was hardly surprising when the Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson announced the launch of an independent report into the matter.
That it was led by “poacher-turned-game-keeper” Sir Stuart Etherington – who just so happens to chair the, er, whiter than white, not-for-profit organisation NCVO – hardly raised an eyebrow.
Within weeks, the report had landed on the minister’s desk. To be fair, it all sounded good to begin with, a new regulator was planned, one with sharper teeth, too, and even the DMA backed its approach as an endorsement of its own Code of Practice.
However, then came the reality. Was it reasonable to expect charities to move to an opt-in only regime for marketing data? Given the fact he had recommended it, perhaps unsurprisingly Etherington thought so, believing that the looming EU General Data Protection Regulation would demand it anyway.
But, said opponents, the EU laws are far from a done deal, so why should charities be forced to adopt it? Fundraising agencies have been particularly vocal, branding the move both “ludicrous” and “dangerous”.
One agency boss pretty much summed up the feeling when he said: “The selling and swapping of data has massive implications for the sector. If this change goes through, it would have a huge impact on smaller charities that rely on purchasing charity data to get direct mail to work. Many charities are not too sure where to go.”
The RNLI has predicted the switch to opt-in will leave a £36m hole in its coffers over the next five years. Other charities which rely heavily on bought-in and shared data will not have that luxury.
Then there is the small matter of a Fundraising Preference Service (FPS), which Etherington said would enable people to “hit the reset button” on communications they receive from charities. Once again, it would mean that charities would be forced to follow a different set of rules to other sectors.
Even the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has conceded that an FPS would be confusing and that he would have no power of sanction as it is not covered by an specific laws – either UK or European.
Then last week it emerged that the Government is aiming to add two new clauses to the Charities Bill to put a levy to fund the new regulator and the move to an opt-in regime on the Statute Book, meaning charities could be taken to court if they don’t toe the line.
Now few would argue against the fact that something needs to be done and that the rules governing charity marketers don’t need tightening up. But many of the bad practices would have been stamped out if the IoF had got its act together.
Never mind throwing the baby away with the bathwater, the proposed clampdown threatens to send a whole industry down the plug-hole. But is anyone going to stand up to a Government seemingly hell-bent on reform and try to prevent the apocalypse now?

Charlie McKelvey is publishing editor of Decision Marketing

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