THE BLOG

Charities Must Show We Can Be Trusted With Personal Data

08/09/2015 10:44 BST | Updated 07/09/2016 10:12 BST

It has not been a good summer for charities. Questionable fundraising practices have dominated newspaper front pages, raising very serious questions about some of the tactics used by voluntary organisations to fund their important work.

Charities know that having good relationships with supporters is essential to their survival. Jeopardising that bond of trust would be fatal. People rightly have high expectations of the good causes they support, and it is clear that in some instances, charities and fundraisers have fallen short. The act of giving should bring a sense of fulfilment, and satisfaction, not be motivated by guilt or tarred by a fear that a gift will simply be followed by unending requests for more.

Central to many of these recent fundraising controversies has been the question of how charities use data, particularly personal data about their supporters. In this respect, charities are far from alone.

It has been said that the pursuit of personal data is the 21st century's gold rush. Across the public and private sectors, the collection of personal data now plays an increasingly major role in how organisations operate.

This brings with it significant advantages. It means that marketing, offers or information can be targeted more precisely than ever before. People no longer need to be bombarded with correspondence that isn't relevant to them.

For charities this can be of huge benefit in helping to develop good relationships with their supporters. Research published by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) recently confirms that the ways in which people like to be contacted by the causes they support can vary hugely. Younger people, for instance, are much more likely to want regular updates from charities on the work they are doing. It also means that ever-stretched charity marketing resources can be spent much more efficiently.

But as the spate of recent exposés has highlighted, people's personal details are precious, and those who hold them must use them responsibly.

This applies as much if not more to charities as it does to businesses, marketing companies and government. It has been hugely disheartening to see that in some cases, charities or those who fundraise on their behalf have failed to live up to the standards their supporters expect.

In tackling the problem we need a better approach across the board to people's personal data. The electoral roll, with the names and addresses of millions who do not opt out, is for sale to anyone who wants to buy it. Businesses routinely share and sell the personal details of customers. All too often this serves to breed mistrust. People are as annoyed by marketing junk mail and nuisance sales calls as they are by cold calls and unsolicited correspondence from charities.

As well as better regulation of charities there is a strong case for looking again at the laws governing how people's data is used. Perhaps the Data Protection Act is too open to interpretation in today's society where personal data is now held and used on such a large scale.

People tend to have higher expectations of the charities they support than they do of other organisations. This is a huge compliment, but one which comes at a price. Failure to live up to those expectations will deter donations and threaten the legitimate use of data and the advantages it can bring to good causes.

One headline last week focused on a charity's use of screening techniques to gauge the likeliness of supporters leaving a charitable legacy in their will. There are good reasons for charities being able to project and predict where their future income may come from. But they have to carry their donors with them and ensure they are happy with the methods being used. Otherwise their work risks being undermined in a climate where any use of personal data by charities is now viewed with suspicion.

Later this month Sir Stuart Etherington will report on his review of fundraising regulation. It is vital this deals robustly with the problem and that charities respond in a way which reassures the public that charities have got their house in order and can be trusted with their personal details.