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Where now for the Fundraising Preference Service?

17 Nov 2015 Voices

Charities are right to worry about many aspects of the Fundraising Preference Service, says David Ainsworth. But the sector must also accept that it is a direct result of poor fundraising practice.

Charities are right to worry about many aspects of the Fundraising Preference Service, says David Ainsworth. But the sector must also accept that it is a direct result of poor fundraising practice.

The Fundraising Preference Service has met with little enthusiasm since it was originally proposed in the Etherington Review.

It was described in the review document as both a “reset button” and a “suppression list” for donors who were plagued by calls, and it set alarm bells ringing up and down the sector. The worry was that it would work like the Telephone Preference Service and Mail Preference Service, and effectively cut a donor off from all contact with the press of one button. Some commentators have claimed it will permanently damage giving.

There are a number of issues to address here.

First is the extent to which the sector, in failing to clean up its own act, may have surrendered some of its right to complain about the solution.

Second is whether the burden of the FPS is likely to fall in the right place. Small charities are likely to suffer worst, but it is the big volume fundraisers who have caused the trouble.

Third is that there is a big difference between the two descriptions mentioned above. A “reset button” would not permanently block charities from speaking to donors. A “suppression list” would. The former is a much more proportionate, and potentially more practical, solution than the latter.

Something is needed

First, let’s talk about why the FPS was thought to be a good idea: people are getting deluged with fundraising mailing and they don’t know what to do about it.

Charities need to send a clear message that they’re serious about not bothering elderly and vulnerable people. The sector has not had a stellar record here. Charities have been guilty of swapping donor data, they’ve employed some fairly shady agencies, and one or two big organisations have relied on volume and the hard sell to make money. The result is that some individuals have ended up on everyone’s mailing list, and it will take collective action to solve this problem.

I don’t have much patience with people who say “Other cold-calling sectors don’t have their own preference service. Why should we have stricter rules than PPI salesmen and ambulance chasers?”

The fundraising sector should probably accept a higher level of scrutiny and circumscription than PPI salesmen and ambulance chasers. I think it should do so willingly and with good grace.

Some of the fundraising practice I’ve personally witnessed in the last few years has been pretty poor. Some charities should be ashamed of themselves. It distresses me that some fundraisers still can’t see that anything happened that was wrong, and that everybody else was so wilfully blind to the fact it was occurring at all.

Practical problems

So I can understand the desire for an FPS. But there are practical problems which have to be overcome.

Just because it’s important to send the right message, that’s not a good enough reason to introduce labyrinthine and complex regulations that prevent contact with supporters.

There is a strong blog by Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy, in which he outlines 20 issues with the FPS, including some pretty serious ones. Despite my feeling that the sector has brought the FPS on itself, I agree with most of his points.

For one thing, at the moment the FPS proposals allow a person to opt out by adding their name to a “suppression list” which charities would have to check against before they launch campaigns.

But that’s quite tricky. A person is a complicated thing to opt out of a system. A donor would need to give addresses, phone numbers, work details, and extensive corroborating information. What if they have more than one name? More than one contact address? What if two people at the same address have the same name? How much information would need to be kept, and for how long? Who would keep it? Could it possibly comply with data protection rules?

Then it starts to get more complicated as you move through time. The donor changes their name, gives to three charities and asks for information, changes their mind and asks those charities to stop, has a child with the same name, gives them their old phone, gives again.

After all, charities keep multiple databases, obtained at different times, with partial information. Donor information isn’t neatly captured, stored forever. Data entry is done by bored people on low pay, people who change jobs frequently and are more interested in other things when they’re there. It would be hard to conclusively match an FPS entry to a donor.

Then there’s the difficulty of administrative and campaigning calls. Is the FPS to stop charities emailing supporters to ask them to campaign? Become members? Sign a petition? Use a service? It can’t stop all communications, after all, or any customer of a charity could just sign up to the FPS and the body owed money couldn’t send an invoice.

Then there’s the cost. This is likely to be a separate service, which won’t dovetail at all with the TPS and MPS – and the ICO are on record as opposing it for that reason – and it would mean two layers of checking before you could send a single fundraising mailing.

Charities would need to pay to run it, and pay to use it. They’d need considerable database capabilities, and small charities would suffer much worse than large ones.

The problem is that compliance costs don't change much, whatever the size of the campaign, so small charities would end up paying proportionately more. They already do under the TPS. The FPS could drive them out of the giving business.

Finally, of course, there is enforcement. How could the Fundraising Regulator actually make people obey the FPS? How much work would be needed to prove that a charity was breaching the rules?

If it was done incorrectly, it could be a charter for shady behaviour. Because obeying the rules would become prohibitively expensive, and enforcing them would become so difficult, business could end up flowing to seedy bottom-feeders who make it a profession to dodge the regulations.

So how could it work?

If we accept that the FPS is going to happen, let’s think about what a workable solution might look like.

Well one possibility is that it’s not a separate service, but just a clearing house for the TPS and MPS. Anyone who approaches the regulator and enters their details just gets put on those two lists. That would make life much easier for all concerned. Of course, it wouldn’t just touch fundraising communications, but that’s not the end of the world.

If that won’t work, could the FPS function purely as a reset button? Anyone who contacts the regulator with their details is removed from all current lists held by current fundraising charities. But the list does not prevent your data being captured again. That would solve the problem the FPS is intended to solve: people who’ve found themselves on hundreds of mailing lists.

I can see significant difficulties with this idea, too – disseminating the information to those holding mailing lists, mostly – but it seems easier than a permanent suppression list.

One final word

The FPS seems to defy clear conclusions.

One major problem is that the FPS proposals are still so low on detail. We’ve agreed it will happen, before we’ve agreed what it is. So it is impossible to predict exactly what it will look like. We don’t know what we’re arguing about.

I accept the NCVO’s desire to help people who find themselves on a hundred mailing lists, but I can see no easy and simple way to achieve those goals. The FPS sounds complicated, messy and hard to operate.

And I would have a lot more sympathy for the idea of an FPS if the worst offenders were going to be the ones worst hit. But it’s not big charities pumping out hundreds of thousands of mailings who will really suffer. It’s smaller bodies who will suffer most. That seems to have been compounded because their representation at a forthcoming summit is likely to be limited.

In short, I understand the reasons the sector hates it. But my sympathy is limited because over the last decade fundraisers have been warned many times to put their house in order – by journalists, by internal reviews, by independent reports, by Parliamentary committees – and every time the sector has tried to shoot the messenger and gone back to business as usual.

Well, these are the results. If you don't like them, too late now.