The Fundraising Regulator has criticised the actions of seven charities which employed the defunct agency Neet Feet, in its first ever adjudication decision.
In the adjudication report, published today, the regulator found that Action for Children; Home Farm Trust; the RNIB; Save the Children; Smile Train; UNICEF and World Animal Protection “did not employ all reasonable efforts to ensure” that the agency’s work was in compliance with the Code of Fundraising Practice.
The regulator also found that Neet Feet breached six sections of the Code of Fundraising Practice, and that fundraisers had "deliberately intimidated, misled and targeted the vulnerable".
It said the agency’s fundraisers were: “derogatory to the public, accepted donations from vulnerable people, were unreasonably persistent and misleading in pressuring donors, fundraised under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and did not employ best efforts to ensure donors were over the age of 18”. They also ignored "No Cold Calling" stickers.
The Children’s Trust was found to have made “all reasonable efforts” to ensure that Neet Feet’s fundraisers operated within the bounds of the Code and escaped censure as a result.
The investigation into Neet Feet was launched after an expose by the Sun found evidence of the agency’s fundraisers using aggressive tactics, deliberately targeting the young and elderly and using of illegal drugs during work hours.
The Sun article was published on 11 July this year. Within 2 weeks Neet Feet had gone into voluntary liquidation, with the loss of 130 jobs across offices in Bristol, London and Cardiff.
As part of the investigation, the Sun provided the regulator with over six hours of video footage compiled by an undercover reporter.
Gerald Oppenheim, director of policy at the Fundraising Regulator, told Civil Society News that of the eight charities involved, only Action for Children and The Children’s Trust took up the regulator’s invitation to review the footage.
Oppenheim also confirmed that the adjudication committee reached its first decision without the input of two of its members. Both Peter Hills-Jones, former chief executive of the Public Fundraising Association – of which Neet Feet were once a member organisation – and Catherine Cottrell, deputy executive director of fundraising at Uncief UK, stood back from the adjudication due to conflicts of interest.
Criticism of the charities
The adjudication is strongly critical of all the named charities - and, indeed, the sector as a whole - of being "largely focused on how much money was rasied" and not focused enough on how that money is raised. The regulator said that "while we are aware of the financial pressures on the sector, we consider that more attention could, and should, have been paid to the experience of the donor".
While the regulator’s adjudication committee found that each of the charities had contracts in place with the agency which “contractually required Neet Feet not to conduct itself in a way that would bring its clients into disrepute”, none of the charities outlined how the agency’s “compliance with the Code was to be monitored or prescribed how frequently, or in what form, that monitoring would take place”.
Action for Children, Unicef UK and Save the Children UK were the three charities originally named in The Sun’s article.
The regulator criticised Action for Children as it “did not monitor the training delivered” by Neet Feet, nor did it “conduct a sufficient number of mystery shopping exercises”. Both Unicef UK and Save the Children were criticised for not making “all reasonable efforts to ensure that Neet Feet were complying with the Code”, despite the regulator’s admission that both took a “number of measures to monitor and supervise” the agency.
All other charities except The Children's Trust were criticised for a similar lack of oversight, despite many of them not working with the Neet Feet team in Bristol.
As a result of the investigation World Animal Protection and Smile Train have effectively suspended all future face-to-face fundraising campaigns.
The Fundraising Regulator has called on the chief executives of all seven charities to write to it “within three months to confirm what action they have taken in response to our findings and recommendations”.
Neet Feet response
The Sun’s article also alleged that a number of fundraisers employed by the agency had criminal records, a fact which the agency never disputed.
In a statement provided to the Fundraising Regulator, a representative from Neet Feet said it “employed some people that when we met them they were not in employment, education or training. We employed great people and one or two not so great people.
“We believe in rehabilitation and giving people an opportunity, as did many of our clients until The Sun printed their story”.
The Fundraising Regulator also found that Neet Feet’s training and quality assurance arrangements were “ad hoc in nature” and could find no evidence that the agency trained its fundraisers on both the PFRA rulebook and on the Code of Fundraising Practice.
Proposed changes to the Code and conclusions
The Fundraising Regulator said it has identified two areas of the Code relevant to this decision which it may amend and perhaps provide “supporting guidance” around in the future. These relate to “contractual arrangements between charities and third parties and whether further steps should be required of third-party agencies who employ people with criminal records”.
It found a great deal of “variation between the contracts that the different parties had in place” with the agency and said that the Code could be amended in future to “include confirmation that the charity and the agency carry joint responsibility for ensuring that fundraising activities comply with the Code”.
The regulator said however that it would “not be appropriate for us to recommend that no fundraising agency should ever employ ex-offender” – however it said that in this instance Neet Feet “could, and should, have done more to ensure the monitoring and oversight” of its employees.
Lord Grade, chair of the Fundraising Regulator, said: “The practices undertaken by Neet Feet fell far short of the ethical and respectful standards we expect. Fundraisers deliberately intimidated, misled and targeted the vulnerable. Actions like this sully fundraising and damage the reputation of the entire sector.
“Seven of the eight charities that engaged Neet Feet should have done more to specify contractual obligations and monitor compliance. While we recognise that charities are under financial pressure, the donor experience must always come first. If donors are treated badly, beneficiaries will suffer.”
The responses from the charities and fundraising umbrella bodies can be found.