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Stephen Cotterill: Is the FPS a panacea or a placebo?

06 Jul 2017 Voices

On the day the FPS launches Stephen Cotterill summarises the story so far, and asks if the new service will work. 

Today marks the launch of the Fundraising Preference Service (FPS) - an initiative by the Fundraising Regulator that allows the public to suppress marketing communications from specified charities. The service has been in the pipeline for nearly two years, has undergone multiple revisions on the back of sector-wide consultations and cost a pretty penny of the regulator's budget. But will it work?

Before we get on to that, it's worth taking a moment to give some context to how the FPS came about and what it's initial premise was. The service resulted from recommendations put forward in a review of fundraising practice by Sir Stuart Etherington in 2015 following the high-profile suicide of volunteer fundraiser Olive Cooke.

The Etherington Review called for a number of measures including the establishment of the Fundraising Regulator and a system whereby “anyone who is inundated with fundraising marketing material from charities will be able to press 'reset' and stop receiving this material".

Original proposals for the FPS were published in July 2016. The subsequent consultation garnered over 100 responses, providing feedback on the proposed system’s practicality for the public and value for money for charities.
The FPS website and phone line development was commissioned in December 2016, following a further eight-week consultation exercise, which gathered the views of nearly 900 charity workers and 240 members of the public.

Eventually, a Cross-Party Review of Fundraising Regulation recommended a service that allowed members of the public to choose to stop email, telephone, addressed post, and/or text messages from selected charities.

The FPS was born.

How does it work?

The version of the FPS that goes live today allows requests to be submitted via the website There is also a telephone helpline service.

The Fundraising Regulator recommends that a member of the public first contacts the charity directly and only uses the FPS in such cases as when direct communication has broken down or is  stressful or it is not clear if consent has been given.

To the regulator's credit, the website is fairly intuitive and a user can identify the charities he or she no longer wants to hear from by either entering the registered charity’s number or searching the charity database using the organisation's name.

So far so good.

Users must provide their name and relevant contact information so that they can be matched to the charity’s records and the communication can be stopped.

Once all details have been provided and the request submitted, the FPS will send an automatic email to the charities, with a 28-day deadline to remove the person's details from direct marketing lists.

But there's a catch – this is no "reset button". Only three charities can be identified in any one online request. If someone wishes to identify further charities, they can do so by logging out, then logging back in again, submitting new requests.

If a member of the public continues to receive communications and they wish to make a complaint, a last resort is via the Fundraising Regulator’s Complaints Form.

So, will it work?

An initial concern is the mindset of a member of the public at the point when they are motivated to register a charity or charities with the FPS. How are they feeling? Most likely, they are pretty pissed off. Any hoop they have to jump through at this point, no matter how necessary, is likely to fuel further ire. Most people will probably understand the need to enter personal information, but they may be looking for a quick solution to suppress multiple organisations. The log off, log in dance could push the wrong buttons.

There is also the matter of trust. Are people confident enough about the service to enter personal details, given the history of data sharing in the sector?

The other question to ask is: How has it got to this point? A donor signing up to the FPS is a symptom, not the cure. If a charity just wipes that person off their marketing list but does not change their fundraising practices the result will be gradual attrition and little or no true reform.

The other side of the coin is what this means for fundraisers. If a donor changes their mind they will need to contact each charity directly to confirm they now give them consent to send communications, even if they have donated. The charity will then have the right to resume communications, but until then they are lost despite any change in marketing strategies (although they can acknowledge receipt of a gift).

People may also be looking to stop all communications – mail drops, door-to-door and so on – from all or some charities. The FPS states it doesn't do this but the danger is people won't read the small print. The fear thereafter is that irritation evolves into a healthy rage and a tabloid scandal rears its head.

Public perception

The real hindrance to the success of the FPS, however, is how it will be publicised and, more importantly, how it will be perceived. Which brings us to Lord Grade.

There is no doubt Grade gets coverage. He has an established network of contacts in media; he is a household name; and he is assured in front of the camera. For an organisation with limited budget, he is a godsend for getting your message out.

The problem is with what he says.

His tone with the sector is one thing: combative, provocative, lacking of empathy. Not great for an organisation reliant on voluntary levies. But that is not what truly concerns me. It's the lack of accuracy and apparent slim grasp of the mechanics of the industry.

During his BBC Breakfast appearance earlier this week, Grade had a ten-minute slot in which to explain the launch of the FPS. Of the three main points he made during that interview, two of them were wrong. He said you could register the charities you wish to hear from through the FPS – well, you can't. He said you could stop all communications from all charities – again, you can't.

What this gives rise to is a critical mismanagement of public expectations of what the FPS can actually do. The regulator is now going to have to row back on these claims, making what should have been quite a simple explanation entirely more complex.

Despite the concerns around the FPS, the Fundraising Regulator has worked incredibly hard to try to create a system that it believes is both considerate of the public's wishes and nuanced enough not to have a devastating impact on charities' income. This will come to nought if it's not communicated properly.

Ultimately though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we will have to wait and see what the public will make of all this and whether they actually use it. The system will undergo a full, formal review once it has been operational for 12-18 months, by which time, we should know if it's a panacea or a placebo.


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