Charities need to defend themselves

I have written before about the threat to the income charities make from telephone fundraising. But the argument that charities should be allowed to call members and supporters who are signed up to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) has been lost. From now on, charities will be unable to call people registered with the TPS unless they have explicitly given consent, i.e. notified the charity that they are happy to be called.

This means that some charities will no longer be able to speak to 70-80% of their donors and charity income will drop by an estimated £40 million a year. Ultimately it is not charities which will suffer; it is the causes and people for which we exist.

With less telephone fundraising, the quest to find an unobjectionable way to ask people for money will go on. One reason telephone fundraising caught on was that it was relatively low cost, meaning more money went to beneficiaries. Any suggestions of alternative fundraising channels – cost-effective and inoffensive – are welcome.

Charities will find other ways to raise money, but the existential crisis of the charity sector looks set to continue. The populist critique of charities’ shortcomings was well captured in a Times article by the Conservative peer, Matt Ridley. Its headline gives a flavour: ‘Charities in crisis are ripe for radical cleansing. Poor governance, questionable fundraising, irresponsible activism… we need to shine a bright light in dark corners.’

Ridley’s piece bashes the usual suspects (the RSPB, the RSPCA, Greenpeace) and gives an honourable mention to the Institute of Economic Affairs, a charity funded by… er, it is not clear who funds the IEA. Indeed, it is not clear who funds its Free Enterprise Award, won last year by Matt Ridley.

It is unfortunate that Lord Ridley seems to think that charities that do or say things with which he disagrees must be behaving improperly. Nevertheless, he makes some telling points. I think he is right to say that the sector is in crisis and “needs some big thinking”. He is right that some charities have poor governance (however hard it may be to hear that from the former Chair of Northern Rock) and that the effectiveness of the Fundraising Standards Board is undermined by its funding model (98% of its income comes from the charities it regulates).

And he is right that there are serious problems with charity fundraising. ‘After years of factory trawling for funds, the big charities are finding it ever more costly to find fish.’ As costs rise, ‘this leads to a vicious circle of even less trust in charities because so little gets through to those we wish to help’ (he is talking specifically here about the return on investment in street fundraising).

These are serious points. No one in the sector should be unwilling to admit that there are things we should do better. Charities should be self-critical and be prepared to take criticism from others – up to a certain point.

But we also need to fight back against the welter of unfair and damaging criticism the sector is now receiving. It is worth repeating that this is most damaging to the people and causes we serve. And as things stand, we are not fighting back effectively.

The telephone fundraising mess seems a case in point. The nub of the issue here is whether charities are allowed in certain circumstances to ring supporters who are TPS-registered. From March 2010, with the full knowledge of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), charities were partially exempt from the TPS regulations. This exemption has now been removed. Nothing has changed except the politics: charities and the TPS have been in the spotlight, the ICO finds it politic to change the rules, and the sector has been unable to resist.

The Charity Commission is a regulator of charities, not the their champion, and it certainly will not champion charities’ right to campaign – see a series of insightful blogs on charity campaigning by Andrew Purkis. Sir Stephen Bubb of ACEVO has spoken out, making some good points about fundraising and governance in a recent blog – but ACEVO represents charity chief executives, not charities as a whole.

What is really needed is robust defence from charity trade body, the NCVO. When the last government conceived the anti-democratic Lobbying Bill, the NCVO engaged largely in ‘insider’ lobbying, leaving robust public campaigning to a group of organisations convened by Friends of the Earth. That may have been the right call at the time, but charities are now on the ropes.

The NCVO’s chief executive, Sir Stuart Etherington, is currently conducting a review of fundraising self-regulation for the government. I do not blame Sir Stuart for carrying out this review, and it is good that the government asked him. But it is hard for the NCVO to act as robust champions of the sector while its chief executive is working ‘inside the tent’.

Once this review is out of the way, I hope that the NCVO, working with ACEVO and its member organisations, will become much more assertive in defending the sector, rebutting attacks and, yes, coming up with the “big thinking” that Matt Ridley advocates. That should include looking at the way the sector, including charity fundraising, is regulated and how that regulation is paid for.

Of course there are improvements we can make, but a charity fight back is badly needed. It is time to come off the ropes.

Response from Sir Stuart Etherington

I think it’s inevitable that as the sector’s scale has grown substantially over the past decade or two, and charities have become further involved in, for example, public services, the level of scrutiny on us would increase. As charities, we use our right to speak out, to campaign and to criticise policy or practice in government or elsewhere on behalf of the people and causes we work for. The reality is that when we do this, some will not agree with our positions, and will answer back. We can hope that they do so in sensible and constructive terms but sadly that won’t always be the case. I think we have to be realistic about what we can do about this. And I do not think that as a sector we would want to be seen to be questioning others’ right to scrutinise us – especially as we do so much scrutiny of others.

Where we see unreasonable comment, we do what we can to respond. For example, I replied this weekend to a rather poor FT comment piece on tax reliefs. Earlier this month, as Kids Company was in the news, our policy director, Karl Wilding, gave over two dozen media interviews – taking each as an opportunity to send the message that most charities are well-run and trustworthy. So we do quite a bit of defending charities as it is. But our role isn’t simply as a defensive trade association for the sector – I firmly believe we have a leadership role to play too, to help the sector develop policies and practices that will help enhance our work and protect against future problems. As you know, it’s long been our view that the best way to protect and enhance charities’ reputation is for all of us in the sector to work to high standards and be seen to work to high standards.

On your comments about insider tactics – I think you’re right to say that a twin-track approach served the sector well during the Lobbying Bill campaign. I don’t think it’s fair to characterise NCVO as an exclusively insider-campaigning organisation, though. Our successful ‘Give it Back, George’ campaign on Gift Aid in 2012 was very much an outsider-tactics operation.

Looking to more proactive work on enhancing the sector’s reputation – in partnership with CharityComms, we have set up a new group, the Understanding Charities Group, to look at what can be done to secure trust in charities. This is at an early stage but so far the group has developed a theory of change, among other things, to help improve public understanding of how modern charities work. You’ll be hearing more about this in the coming months and I’d warmly welcome CPRE’s involvement. My colleagues would be happy to discuss this with your communications team in the meantime.

On the IEA, you may like to know that I’m speaking at their fringe at the Conservative Party conference in October, which is a debate on their ‘sock puppets’ thesis. I’ve previously made it very clear what I think of their line of argument and I am looking forward to taking another opportunity to demonstrate how wrong-headed it is.



5 Responses to “Charities need to defend themselves”

  1. 1 Robert Flunder August 19, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    The TPS service provides a facility whereby members of the public can register and then protect themselves from intrusive ‘money seeking type’ phone calls.
    There is no justification for charities to even think of themselves as ‘different’ from other bodies and worthy of being exempt from the protection provided to the public that register for the service.
    Charities are able to write to their members if they wish.

    • 2 sspiers August 19, 2015 at 7:09 pm

      Robert, I guess many people share your view. Certainly press coverage of this issue would suggest that they do. I presume you have received calls from charities and found them irritating or intrusive.

      Personally, I signed up to the TPS in hopes of preventing calls about PPI I haven’t taken and personal accidents I’ve not had. I’m afraid I still get such calls. I didn’t join it to stop organisations I support from contacting me. In the last six months I’ve had conversations with three telephone fundraisers and made a donation on one of those occasions. I would say all three calls were a good experience – but perhaps, working for a charity, I’m unusually sympathetic.

      From CPRE’s perspective, we receive very few complaints about the calls and monitor them closely. But it’s an academic argument. My point was about charities’ response to the criticisms they face.

  2. 3 oldbrock2014 August 20, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Well said Shaun. When membership renewals are sent out and when someone gets in contact with CPRE would it be possible to have a set of works where people could just tick or click a automatic link to say that they would be happy to receive calls from CPRE? This could apply to all branches and national office.

    • 4 Linda Allen August 21, 2015 at 9:38 am

      Yes – we already do this to an extent with our current renewal forms and on calls made to our Supporter Services team and we will be reviewing how to make it easier for members and donors to advise us of their preferences in light of the code change. The challenge is that whilst most members respond well to these friendly, no pressure calls when they experience them, if asked beforehand via a printed letter/form they would probably ask not to be called!

  3. 5 Robert Flunder August 20, 2015 at 10:11 am

    In July 2015 The Telegraph reported – “The information watchdog is concerned that people registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which is supposed to stop unsolicited calls, are nevertheless being contacted by some of Britain’s charities.
    Staff working for the British Red Cross, NSPCC, Oxfam and MacMillan are said to be using a quirk in the law to circumvent TPS restrictions where someone has failed to tick a box on a privacy policy to prevent marketing calls.
    One of the call centre agencies used by these and dozens of other charities was telling staff to be “brutal” and “ferocious” in dealing with potential donors.
    Staff were taught to “deflect” any objections raised by those who answered the phone. This applied regardless of whether potential supporters were in their nineties, had dementia or admitted to confusion and memory problems.”

    Its reminiscent of a Panorama programme some years ago about charity fundraising training reflecting the fact that older people are amongst the most generous donors but ALSO amongst the easiest to “repeatedly persuade” – the trainer’s slogan was – “Keep them warm until they’re cold”.

    Abuse of telephone fundraising by charities has resulted in the TPS ruling.
    Charities have brought this upon themselves by their own bad behaviour.

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