David Ainsworth: The sector is the author of its own misfortune

14 Dec 2016 Voices

In recent days there have been some rumblings of complaint in the charity sector, following two critical judgements against two charities by the Information Commissioner's Office, and some triumphal crowing in the Daily Mail.

Essentially the complainants said it wasn't fair. The ICO didn't use the same sort of language about PPI firms when they breached the Data Protection Act. The newspapers are guilty of systemic bias, and have got it in for the sector.

In this one very particular respect the sector's current travails resemble those of Brooks Newmark, its former, rarely regretted minister, who departed after only a couple of months in the job, after being honey-trapped into sexting a journalist.

Newmark could also reasonably complain that the tabloids were out to get him, and that he'd been unfairly singled out. But here's the thing. He'd still got caught with his pants round his ankles. And it's hard for the papers to catch you with your pants down, unless you have lowered them yourself.

Simply, charities are the authors of their own misfortune. Most of the UK's largest charities have been behaving unlawfully, pretty much every year since the Data Protection Act was signed into law. If they don't like the consequences, too late now.

How to repair the reputation of the charity sector

In one way, we're lucky there's a reputation left to protect at all. The evidence of wrongdoing is stark. Elderly people getting pestered thousands of times a year. Thirty million donor records wrongly swapped or sold, many of them hundreds of times, some of them not even to other charities but to outright crooks. Tens of thousands of complaints. Howls of protest on TV, in the papers, and in Parliament.

If other sectors were hounding people this way and had behaved so unapologetically when caught, they would have no goodwill left.

Instead, the sector has been spared from disaster by the magic of a single word.

Here's a thought experiment. Write the word charity and draw a circle around it, and forty or fifty arrows pointing in different directions. At the other end of those arrows write every word you associate with that word, charity.

Basically, you'll find that charity has such positive connotations, such good feelings linked with it, that it's quite hard to think about charity and have negative attitudes. As soon as you stop concentrating, all the positive words at the end of the arrows crowd forward into the brain when you hear people talking about charities. The same magic protects firefighters, Christianity and the NHS.

If you want more goals, move the goalposts

So there is a reputation left to protect, and charities had better get on with doing it. In order to do so, they need to ensure that the problems of the past cannot reoccur.

In the short term, this is happening. Charities are moving away from mass mailings. Different approaches to fundraising are being championed. And obviously, the sector now plans to obey the law. There are many drives to enshrine best practice. In theory, that best practice is also being enforced much more rigorously by the ICO and the new Fundraising Regulator.

But many of these initiatives will fade away over time. If in a few years, the base incentives remain the same, then behaviours will reflect those incentives.

And so far, the incentives do remain the same.

The root of the problem is the tragedy of the commons. Fundraisers who behave badly accrue 100 per cent of the benefit from their actions. They pester people and get money. But most of the disbenefit - the reputational harm and distrust involved - accrues to other fundraisers.

The logical conclusion to thisis that there ought to be a strong push for change from the best fundraisers - the ethical, long-term relationship builders, focused on donor wellbeing - to stop shysters from ruining their good name. Yet it doesn't seem to have happened.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, fundraisers - perennial optimists that they are - believe in the power of the ask. They believe that if we ask more, in the right way, the public will give more. It was this attitude which drove the Institute of Fundraising's standards committee, when it set the Code of Fundraising Practice, to effectively make it as easy as possible to ask as often as you wanted. This unfortunately meant that bulk mailing vulnerable people ended up looking like a top drawer idea.

But the evidence suggests that donations are a limited resource. Data collected by Cass Business School shows no change in the proportion of household income given to charity over the past 40 years. You cannot grow the pool - at least as far as individual giving goes. So you need to tend it carefully. It's rather counterintuitive, but the best fundraisers should be in favour of rules making it harder to ask for money. Then their beautiful, careful, thoughtful asks will stand out much more clearly from the tsunami of mass-produced guilt.

The second issue is fundraisers think well of one another. They believe in the carrot, not the stick.

This is admirable. Most fundraisers, in my experience, are positive, enthusiastic people who love other people, and want to do good. They are gregarious, compassionate, and trusting. They believe that if you just show people the light, they will walk into it.

The problem is that even good people can behave badly if given bad incentives – if the trustee board sets short-term giving targets, for example. And some people just don't want to be nice people, no matter how much you tell them how.

So I want to make it harder to follow poor practice, I hear you say. Well, isn't that what we're already doing, with the ICO and the Fundraising Regulator? Creating stronger incentives? Isn’t the job already done.

Pardon me for my skepticism, but I don't think it will really work. I think the drive needs to come from within the profession. The Fundraising Regulator - necessary though it is - is not self-regulation, whatever the government wants to call it. It also does not have powerful tools at its disposal to enforce compliance. And it can only take action after receiving a complaint and carrying out an investigation. In some cases this will be so long after the event that everyone has forgotten.

The best way is if the fundraising profession gets its own house in order. Fundraisers must be quick to identify poor practice in their peers.

The Institute of Fundraising is taking some very positive steps in this direction. It’s moving towards a system of accreditation for fundraising bodies. It’s working towards becoming a chartered institute, meaning its members will become both more strictly licensed and more employable. It is this system of accreditation and licensing the fundraising sector needs.

If charities only hire accredited agencies and licensed fundraisers, it both promotes best practice and creates a process to weed out the worst offenders. If you can achieve a higher level of qualification if you demonstrate excellence - and a better job thereby – then there is an effective mechanism to push good practice.

We need to make good practice easy to follow. But we also need to make bad practice hard.


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