Regulating Fundraising for the Future: a Fundraising Preference Service

This is the first of two blog posts about the Fundraising Preference Service proposed in the review of fundraising regulation led by NCVO’s Sir Stuart Etherington. The recommendation has been the subject of intense debate, so this post outlines why the service has been proposed. The second post will explain how it might be implemented, though we don’t have all the answers that people will inevitably be looking for.

What is the Fundraising Preference Service?

The Review has proposed the establishment of a Fundraising Preference Service. This would be a service for individuals and fundraising organisations (I’ll use charities as a shorthand). It should be run by the new Fundraising Regulator. It is a list of people, and their contact details, who do not wish to be contacted with fundraising communications. Charities can access the list to cross check their own databases against prior to fundraising campaigns. And where members of the public continue to receive fundraising communications despite registering, the Fundraising Preference Service offers a basis for changing the relationship.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the second blog post, but the Review panel are well aware of the challenges of implementation. If you’re interested in these, I’ve read strong critiques from Ian MacQuillin and Tobin Aldrich.

What problem is a Fundraising Preference Service seeking to address?

The Review is very clear that charities have a right to ask. It is equally clear that the public have a right to be left alone – and that for some, that balance has gone awry. The public have already demonstrated a desire to be able to more easily remove themselves from charity communications: the BBC’s One Show produced a pro forma ‘don’t contact me’ letter, which was downloaded 30,000 times in a week.

one show

Watching the news coverage of today’s report, there would appear to be no shortage of people wishing for an easier means to ‘reset’ their relationships with charities. Whether the result of mistakenly failing to tick an opt out box or some long-forgotten lifestyle survey, some people feel a lack of control of such communications, whether for themselves or their relatives.

Who is the Fundraising Preference Service for?

The Fundraising Preference Service seeks to redress this balance between charities and the public and provide a simple mechanism for a ‘reset’. In that sense, it’s both a service for those parts of the public who wish to be left alone, and for charities that wish to maintain their reputation by not contacting those who do not wish to be approached.

Just as the Mail Preference Service or the Telephone Preference Service do not completely stop all communications, we would not expect the Fundraising Preference Service to stop all fundraising communications. But we would expect members of the public to see a noticeable difference.

Conversely, we envisage that the Fundraising Preference Service would mainly be a tool for large charities undertaking large volume fundraising.

Isn’t a Fundraising Preference Service unnecessary?

There are substantive arguments that such a service isn’t necessary. Impending changes in EU regulation will very likely move all direct marketing communications to an opt-in only basis by 2018. Mail, fax and telephone preference services already exist, and the public can use these, notwithstanding complaints regarding their effectiveness (which the Fundraising Preference Service may also suffer from).

I’ve similarly heard that the proposal is a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ or that you wouldn’t have such a service for, say, the car industry. I hope we can address the former with good design. And I do not think we need to set standards in our sector by those in the for-profit sector.

bulk mail

A Fundraising Preference Service nevertheless holds attractions, not least of which is its ‘clean slate’ approach in an era where charities need to show that they are ahead of public opinion, not trailing it. And we would argue that is where the public is at: look, for example, at the current debate around ad blocking on mobile devices (in response to websites treating readers as objects to monetise), or the increasing awareness of the value of personal data on the web.

What next?

Some people will wish to reset their relationship with charities through the Fundraising Preference Service. We do not know how many: 30,000 may be a floor or a ceiling.  Either way, sign-ups would represent a legitimate desire on the part of those registering to take control of their affairs.

Many have today remarked the devil will be in the detail. I will explore this in part 2. We will undoubtedly need the support and insight of fundraisers to make this proposal work.

In an ideal world, people wouldn’t feel the need to register with the proposed Fundraising Preference Service: fundraising would inspire and encourage people to stay in touch. We are not yet in that world.

Our hope is that the wider proposals in this review will once again reconnect charities with their supporters, and rebuild the confidence of the wider public. Nothing would please the Review panel more than the Fundraising Preference Service not being used because people are happy with the way in which they are asked and happy with the level of fundraising they encounter.

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Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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