It has been a rough few weeks for fundraisers and, as we see more scandal and problems come to light, I wonder just where we go from here.
Fundraising can be the most brilliant profession - creative and target driven. If you are raising money for a cause that you believe in, there is nothing like the buzz of it. Of course, the challenging economy has meant that fundraisers require even more ingenuity. It's a profession not for the faint-hearted for sure, but for those wanting a challenge, what could be more exciting?
The issues related to fundraising practice started in June this year when stories emerged questioning the fundraising solicitation tactics of some of the larger charities. The report related to Bristol-based Olive Cooke, the 92 year old, who allegedly committed suicide because of charities pursuing her for money.
Since then, even more alarming stories have started to emerge, specifically in relation to telephone fundraising organisations and their tactics. So concerning have been the undercover investigations led by the Daily Mail, that we are now in the midst of a Government review - and new legislation is likely on the way. Such investigation should also link to important scrutiny of the relevant professional bodies, such as the Institute of Fundraising and Fundraising Standards Board which, if not directly complicit in knowing about such practices, has surely been too passive.
So what do we do? Do we tar all charity fundraisers with the same brush? Do we flagellate the good work of charities for the greed and underhand tactics of a few? Whatever happens next it's undoubtedly time for fundraisers to look in the mirror. So what should fundraisers be doing to protect their reputation, their ethics and the causes that they represent?
1. CEO and Trustees - It's been rather concerning that the CEOs and Trustees of charities didn't seem to have a clue what was going on in their fundraising teams. Whilst it will be the telemarketers that are undoubtedly blamed - the buck really does stop with the leadership of charities. Most of the larger charities don't seem to even have a handle on their marketing data, where 90% of telemarketing calls are outsourced to third-party companies and often the donor's information is sold to a charity for a fee. In deciding what tactics are used to raise money, leadership really does need to come from the top.
2. Respect the public - With trust in charities at an all time low and with most of the general public being just tolerant if not resentful of fundraisers, it is essential that charities show respect. The use of list rentals, of telephone fundraising agencies, of chuggers, the use of premium free gifts in acquisition packages - are all problematic. It seems that as a fundraiser, as long as you are bringing in the money then tactics don't matter, but public opinion and experience must come first.
3. Let's campaign for the professional bodies that we need - Our professional bodies need to start to make the right noises and to advocate on an ethical ticket. One of the telephone fundraising agencies GoGen sells its credentials on having been recognised by the Institute of Fundraising in the 'best use of telephone' category of the National Fundraising Awards. Suffice to say that we need our professional bodies to support good due diligence...and as fundraisers we need to demand it.
4. Walk the talk and know what's right - This is an obvious one but there is nothing like instinct and doing what's right. As a fundraiser, if you know that you are bending the rules and exploiting potential or vulnerable donors then it's time to withdraw. Raising money at any cost is just not acceptable.
5. Talk to donors, and then talk again - The charities that are in defensive mode about Olive Cooke's death are saying that all that donors need to do is to ask to be taken off the lists, that rules exist to protect people. But if you are elderly or ill or vulnerable, just how likely are you going to be able to stand up for yourself? And it seems that some agencies have been overriding the rules anyway... Charities can't just outsource these calls to agencies and then plead ignorance about the tactics - remaining in touch and checking the experience of donors is vital.
Ultimately we need to move quickly. If we don't sort this situation out fast, then charities run the risk of Government looking to impose more statutory regulation in this area and further regulation is often considered the death-knell for charities. But when you consider that rogue traders are prosecuted using consumer protection regulations, then the fact that we have little in place to regulate or prosecute charities that flaunt the rules, seems bonkers. And with the EU's Data Protection Directive on the way, with donors needing to opt in to be contacted, and the 'right to be forgotten' legislation where you can be removed from charitable databases forever - then radical change might just be around the corner...
Let's hope that this terrible press for fundraising has a genuinely good legacy and that in the charitable business we do hold up a mirror and start to see some change. Olive Cooke needs to be remembered, and that's for sure....