Changes to telephone fundraising guidelines: what you need to know

by Adrian Beney and Rosie Dale - 02 September 2015


Adrian and Rosie provide some measured recommendations in response to the current media headlines and public debate about telephone fundraising.

Anyone who has been a parent or a schoolteacher will be all too familiar with the cry “But it’s not FAIR”. This has been the central theme of this summer’s all-out assault by the Daily Mail on the fundraising behaviour of Britain’s charities, prompted by the unrelated death of long-time charity supporter and fundraiser Olive Cooke. Amongst the Mail’s many targets has been the use of the telephone in fundraising and the nature of consent to fundraise from a person.

The Mail’s campaign has already resulted in a revision of the Institute of Fundraising’s (IoF) Code of Fundraising Practice, a review of fundraising self-regulation by Sir Stuart Etherington of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and an enquiry by the Parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

It is abundantly clear that public and press interest in the way charities fundraise, and how this is regulated, is being taken seriously and is not going to go away. And while those who fundraise for education and arts organisations might feel this only concerns the way that mainstream charities behave, this is a dangerously complacent view. New regulation, and new interpretation of existing regulation, will affect any organisation that asks for charitable financial support in the UK.

And while many would disagree with the Mail’s approach, some of the fundraising behaviours which have been highlighted have probably made fundraisers think “I am glad we don’t do that in our organisation”.

So far, no legislation has been changed. Indeed, it is already a fundamental principal of the Data Protection Act that processing must be FAIR.

However, in August the IoF, after discussion with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), amended its Code of Fundraising Practice. This changes the ability of charities to call donors and others with whom they have a relationship and whose phone numbers are registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). (The Code is not the law, but it is what the IoF requires of its members, and forms the self-regulation standard by which the Fundraising Standards Board judges proper behaviour.)

Until this change, the ICO and IoF had agreed that it was reasonable for a charity to make a judgement, based on a previous or existing relationship, that it was OK to call certain individuals even if they were TPS registered. IoF Code section 8.2.3 stated: “Organisations may make the judgement that their relationship with a donor is such that they do not need to seek further consent to receiving calls. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) urges a cautious approach”.

This section has been removed, and the Code now states:
“Organisations MUST NOT make direct marketing calls to Telephone Preference Service (TPS)/Corporate TPS (CTPS)-registered numbers unless the person who registered the number has notified the organisation that they are happy to receive calls for the time being”.

This means that it is now a requirement for compliance with the IoF Code that anyone registered on TPS, even if the charity has called them in the past and regardless of any previous or current relationship, must be made aware that their telephone number may be used for fundraising purposes. They must also have been given an explicit opportunity to opt-out of this use, before that number can be used for fundraising. (ICO prefers opt-in statements, but the law does not require them.) This applies even if the donor was recruited by telephone in the first place, unless the person knew when they provided their telephone number that it would be used for fundraising.

The implications of this change are huge. It is thought that on average between 50-70% of donors are TPS registered. But many organisations haven’t collected opt-in or opt-out statements specific to telephone fundraising, largely because the old Code did not require them for warm donors and individuals they had relationships with.

In alumni fundraising, for example, where a relationship with the individual and their former university or school exists, this clause has been widely used in good faith to override TPS. Many alumni have supplied their telephone number to their university and in doing so have been provided with a clear Data Protection statement that this information will be used for fundraising and direct marketing. These people, even if TPS registered, have been included in telephone fundraising campaigns because it has been assumed, quite reasonably, that they wouldn’t object.

But from now, unless an institution can prove that the person knows that the organisation has their phone number, and that it could be used for telephone fundraising purposes, and that they have been given a chance to opt-out of such use, then under the new Code they cannot be called.

So at least some existing direct debit donors who are TPS registered cannot be called to be asked to upgrade their giving, even if the direct debit gift was acquired via a telephone call. Likewise, TPS registered cash donors who have been giving year on year in response to fundraising calls cannot be called this year and asked to give again, unless the organisation knows the person does not object to use of their phone number in this way. (Past lack of complaint does not imply consent.) It means many university alumni who are TPS registered cannot be called and asked to make their first gift.

This risks fewer donations, less personal and friendly relationship building contact with donors and less money to the life-changing causes that matter.

So what can we do to minimise the impact of this change?

Institutions must screen all their telephone numbers against the TPS register before making calls. (Fundraising calls may be made to those not registered with TPS, providing other guidelines are followed.)

For those who are TPS registered the processing must be “fair” before they can be called. People could be asked to opt-in through statements on contact detail update forms or via personalised emails or letters which explicitly ask individuals to give their consent. Once such consent has been received, individuals could be called. (The ICO prefers opt-in boxes in which the individual is asked to tick that they agree to receiving specific marketing, saying this is “the safest way of demonstrating consent, as it requires a positive choice by the individual to give clear and explicit consent”.)

But not everyone will respond to such a request to opt-in. Not because they don’t want calls from the charity they support or their former university. But because people have busy lives and response rates to emails and mailed questionnaires are often low.

IoF’s website contains guidance that provides another way. If an individual has done all of the following:

  • made a donation or has some other relationship with the charity;
  • has provided their phone number to that charity;
  • has been made aware that this number will be used for fundraising calls; and
  • has been given the opportunity to opt-out

then this would be regarded as fair and would allow that person to be called despite TPS registration.

To continue to call TPS registered donors and others with whom institutions have a relationship, fundraisers must be certain that people being called know that their telephone numbers will be used for fundraising purposes. And they must have been given an opportunity to opt out of this use.

We are recommending that those who are TPS registered are sent a communication which actively and explicitly:

  • states that we have their phone number
  • makes clear that their phone number will be used for the purposes of telephone fundraising
  • gives them the option to opt-out of this if they wish

Such a communication could provide an opportunity for an additional piece of stewardship or as an articulation of why the cause is important. It could be a way of showing that the rights and sensibilities of supporters and members are respected, and that an appropriate relationship with those who care about our work is as important as the money they give.

But despite the benefits that might be gained from such relationship-building communications, this will be unplanned work, which might be difficult for many charities to find the budget or the resource to do.

Beyond this, Data Protection Statements will need to be amended to ensure it’s explicit that data will be used for marketing and telephone fundraising. Opt-outs (for e-mail and telephone) will be needed which allow people to manage their preferences. And recording the fact that we have informed someone of how we will use their data, and any response, needs to be improved. It has always been sensible to print Data Protection Statements on magazine mailings and similar communications so that people know what is being done with their data, and this should continue.

There is a risk that Data Protection Officers within institutions, who understandably tend to have little exposure to fundraising marketing, will want to “play it safe” and recommend gold-plated practices which restrict activity beyond the legal requirements. The fundraising sector needs to “know its stuff” and to be able to explain how our practices comply with the law.

Only an intelligent, informed response which engages legislators, sector bodies, staff (both fundraisers and administrators) and donors will ensure a sensible resolution to the benefit of institutions and donors alike.