The 50 largest fundraising charities together received 18,000 complaints in 2018-19, which is a 17 per cent decrease on the previous year.
Civil Society News analysed the most recent data available in the charities’ annual reports and found that total fundraising complaints fell from over 21,000 in 2017-18 to about 18,000 in 2018-19.
This was the second year that charities have had to include a fundraising statement in their annual reports. This statement should include information about how they fundraise, how they protect vulnerable people, how they monitor third parties, and how many complaints they receive.
Charities said the reason for the change was that they have improved their reporting practices, or addressed issues with specific third parties or fundraising methods.
Some charities saw their fundraising complaints increase substantially.
Last month the Fundraising Regulator published its latest Complaints Report, which also found a decrease in the overall number of complaints among biggest charities and named addressed direct mail and door-to-door as the most complained about method of fundraising.
Top 50 fundraising charities for this piece were identified looking at Fundraising Magazine’s Top 100 Fundraising Directors Survey 2019. Most recent complaints data refer to the year ending on 31 December 2018 or 31 March 2019, depending on each charity’s reporting schedule.
Macmillan most complained about charity
Macmillan Cancer Support received the most complaints for the second year in a row, but also saw a significant year-on-year decrease, going from 6,600 fundraising complaints in 2017-18 to 4,100 in 2018-19 (38 per cent less).
The charity, which is also the second largest fundraising charity with £213m in voluntary income in 2018, said it has a particularly rigorous method of reporting complaints, and that the decrease was largely due to “an issue” with a supplier the charity stopped working with.
Lindsay Grieve, head of customer experience at Macmillan, said: “We are extremely diligent in our reporting of complaints, for instance in 2017 we started to include any ‘expression of dissatisfaction’ on social media as a complaint. This was supported by the Fundraising Regulator as a rigorous way of logging complaints and something that not all charities adhere to.
“The decrease in the number of complaints, from 2017 to 2018, is largely due to an issue with one of our suppliers, who we stopped working with in 2018, as well as general ongoing improvements based on this customer feedback.
“This total focus on improving the way we work meant our customer satisfaction levels were the highest they’ve ever been in 2019, with over 85 per cent of the people who interacted with us saying they would recommend us to their family and friends.”
Four charities received more than 1,000 fundraising complaints
Four charities, including Macmillan, reported more than 1,000 fundraising complaints.
The second most complained about charity was the British Heart Foundation, where fundraising complaints grew by 34 per cent on last year (from 1,025 to 1,374).
Amanda Bringans, director of Fundraising at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The number of complaints we receive in comparison to the millions of interactions we have with people is small. However, we take every complaint seriously and seek to resolve it quickly. We’re also continually reviewing and improving how we work to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our supporters and beneficiaries.”
NSPCC came third and saw one of the biggest year-on-year jumps in fundraising complaints, which went from 665 in 2017-18 to 1,204 the following year (up by 81 per cent).
The vast majority of them were related to individual giving. Its annual report said that during the year the charity re-established a number of its face-to-face fundraising channels.
A NSPCC spokesperson said: “We take all complaints seriously and work hard to put things right, working closely with the Fundraising Regulator. In summer 2018 we updated our compliments, complaints and comments policy to improve our recording of complaints and identify where we need to make improvements.”
According to the annual report, changes made as a result of the review included “introducing clearer guidance on potential indicators of vulnerability; introducing a set of objective questions to ensure consistent treatment in assessing whether to accept a gift; and clearer guidance on how to support a donor’s choice to safely make a gift should they choose to do so”.
Cancer Research UK dropped door-to-door fundraising
Cancer Research UK, which is by far the largest UK fundraising charity with £430.7m of its income coming from donations and legacies, received 1,030 fundraising complaints last year, 43 per cent fewer than in 2017-18 (1,821).
The charity said that the decrease was related to its decision to give up door-to-door fundraising.
Claire Wilson, head of supporter engagement at Cancer Research UK, said: “This is partly to do with the fact that we decided to stop door-to-door fundraising, which had previously been a key driver of complaints.
“We aim to make sure that supporting our work is a positive experience for everyone, and we take any complaints we receive very seriously. Where shortcomings were identified, we expanded our guidance and training for staff and fundraisers to ensure we learn from complaints and put new processes in place to prevent them happening again.”
Complaints grew significantly at Save The Children, Blue Cross, CAFOD and Red Cross
While most charities saw the number of complaints decrease, there were exceptions.
Save The Children saw the second biggest increase in the top ten after NSPCC, going from 633 to 964 complaints (up by 52 per cent).
This does not include inquiries related to the safeguarding scandal Save The Children was involved in (280 complaints). Instead, the charity says “issues” with a form on the website and “a delay in sending out some fundraising packs” were behind the increase.
Vicky Fallon, director of fundraising propositions at Save The Children, said: “We explained this and apologised to supporters who contacted us at the time, and resolved both matters as quickly as possible. We redesigned the form and reviewed our process for sending out fundraising packs.
"We’re pleased to say complaints about fundraising and the website fell significantly in 2019, indicating an improved experience with us for our supporters.”
Blue Cross, CAFOD and Red Cross also saw a rise in complaints.
Blue Cross’s fundraising complaints more than doubled in 2018, going from 167 to 365. The organisation said this was because it increased its external fundraising recruitment agency activity.
Mark Corbett, acting group head of fundraising at Blue Cross, said: “We take complaints incredibly seriously and are dedicated to ensuring our agencies are carefully selected through an agreed process and monitored as they conduct work as ambassadors of Blue Cross.”
CAFOD received 437 complaints in 2018-19, a 78 per cent increase on the previous year, while the Red Cross went from 256 to 366 (up by 43 per cent).
CAFOD said the increase had to do with service problems, mostly related to its virtual gifts, with certificates being sent late or problems with e-cards.
Damian Conlin, head of supporter fundraising at CAFOD, said: “The rise in complaints we saw was largely due to a temporary spike in issues with fulfilment and service problems, as opposed to any reflection of changes in the way we fundraise.
“Now we are past the Christmas selling period we have seen a noticeable drop in complaints for the same period this year, but we recognise we’re operating in an environment where people’s expectations around speed of delivery is increasing, so we’re looking for ways to improve our service in this area.”
Red Cross declined to comment.
Improved reporting practices
Age UK saw the biggest drop in complaints among biggest fundraising charities, from 873 in 2017-2018 to 263 in 2018-19 (a 70 per cent decrease).
This was because it changed the way complaints are logged rather than about its fundraising practices, the charity explained.
A spokesperson for Age UK said: “This financial year we’ve improved our reporting and are now using a more rigorous methodology to count complaints in connection with fundraising activities. For example, we’ve removed duplicates and separated complaints from requests for information, which made up the majority of last year’s number.
“We do count any comments that are negative in nature even if they are small and shared in good faith, such as one-off administrative issues, like having difficulty registering online for one of our events. We really value this feedback as it helps us to identify any improvements we could make.”
Tearfund and Woodland Trust originally featured in the list of charities which received more than 1,000 fundraising complaints.
However, Tearfund said it had incorrectly published the total number of complaints (1,889) in its 2018-19 fundraising statement, instead of the fundraising-related figure only (687). This is pretty much stable compared to the year before (671). Tearfund has since amended the annual report on its website.
Similarly, the Woodland Trust’s 2018 fundraising statement mentions 1,963 overall complaints, but a spokesperson for the charity confirmed that this refers to the overall number of complaints received. They also said in the year ending December 2019 the charity received 367 fundraising complaints, but could not give a fundraising-specific figure for the two years before.
Editor's note - 9 March 2020 14.23
The word "fundraising" has been added to the headline for clarity.