The past year has seen significant changes to UK fundraising standards and a new Fundraising Regulator, but is it enough to restore public trust after the media scandals of 2015? Fundraising Europe interviews Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising (IoF), about the changes to the fundraising landscape over the past year.
[Fundraising Europe] Last year, we covered news of the tragic story of Olive Cooke and complaints from others who reported feeling overwhelmed and pressured into giving by UK charities. Media investigations exposed some concerning practices and newspaper headlines repeatedly accused charity fundraisers of taking fundraising too far. How justified were those accusations?
[Peter Lewis] While the examples of bad practice were isolated, they were no less concerning for us all and they have led to huge changes across the sector.
Although Olive Cooke’s family1 explicitly stated that charities were not responsible for her death, her story, and others in the media, clearly exposed a sense from the public that they weren’t comfortable with some of the ways that charities were asking for money. They wanted to have more control over the way charities asked for support, and it was critical that we addressed those concerns.
That is why we acted so quickly to address this and make some significant changes to the standards of practice that charities must follow and the way that fundraising is regulated.
What have been the main changes over the past year?
At the IoF, we needed to act fast in updating the Code of Practice. We put in place working groups that saw over 200 fundraisers volunteer their time to strengthen it.
Since then there have also been changes made to the law over how charities report about their fundraising activities and, just earlier this month, we supported the establishment of a new Fundraising Regulator, to be funded by charities spending over £100,000 a year on fundraising.
Most importantly, perhaps, we have seen charities themselves – particularly the larger ones - taking action to implement root and branch reviews of both their engagement with their donors and their fundraising practices.
What has been the impact of sustained negative media coverage about charity fundraising in the UK?
It was an incredibly difficult period for charities as a whole, particularly the fundraising sector. Such intense media scrutiny was deeply uncomfortable and made the sector face up to some hard questions about how they fundraise.
This was particularly frustrating as we know that the vast majority of fundraising in the UK is carried out at a high standard.
But, on the back of this, the whole UK fundraising landscape has shifted dramatically from where we were little over a year ago and, as a result, I believe we are now in a far better place.
Are these changes enough to restore public trust?
If you look at the specific issues raised over the past year, you can see that the fundraising sector has taken action on each of them. But the old adage is true; trust is hard won and easily lost. Ultimately only time will tell.
While research from the Charity Commission indicates that public trust has fallen, we can also see that – among those people who have direct experience of fundraising either as a volunteer donor or beneficiary - trust levels remain high. Similarly, people are continuing to give to charities they support, and supporter retention rates have held at a high level.
When we look at indicators of public trust, it will likely be a longer-term effort to turn that around. And this will involve addressing wider issues in the charity sector beyond fundraising, including charity pay and governance.
What has been the IoF’s role and strategy to support the sector in all this?
While we had a key role in making changes to the Code of Fundraising Practice, it was also important that we made sure that fundraisers had a voice in the process and changes to the regulatory environment. Our core focus was to ensure that the self-regulation of fundraising continued. We therefore worked closely with Government and regulatory bodies to lobby for this, rather than see statutory regulation of fundraising come into play.
Moving forward we are re-doubling our efforts to provide training and support for fundraisers and beefing up our role in being a stronger advocate and voice for the fundraising community.
What can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
If there is one message I would give to fundraisers and fundraising organisations across Europe, it is that you should make sure that you are undertaking your fundraising activities in accordance with the values of your charity. My experience is that CEOs and trustees are often far more focused on embedding a charity’s values in its service delivery and campaigning, and less on how it raises support. Trustees can no longer turn a blind eye to their fundraising activities.
And on the positive side all the media scrutiny has made trustees engage in the fundraising activities of their charities in a more fundamental way than ever before. This should be seen as a positive thing, and used as an opportunity to engage trustees in strategic thinking about fundraising in a way that many might not have done before.
On a practical level at the IoF we have prioritised the development of a new compliance service to help and support our individual and organisational members comply with all laws and regulations affecting fundraising.
And from an organisational perspective at the IoF it has been a very good year. Fundraisers and fundraising organisations have turned to us for training and support in greater numbers and our organisational and individual membership has grown significantly.
What are the IoF’s current priorities?
We are in the process of merging with the Public Fundraising Association (PFRA), which is the membership body for street and door-to-door fundraising. This will lead to a stronger, single membership organisation for the fundraising community.
At the same time we are consulting our members on a new strategy focused on three key areas - supporting our members to deliver excellent fundraising; investing in our policy and communications work to ensure that we can better speak on behalf of the fundraising community with regulators, the media and politicians and finally building on our existing success with training, events and networking.
What has been the response from UK charities to the referendum vote opting out of the EU?
Few people within the fundraising community anticipated the Brexit vote and charities, as with all sectors of the economy, are still getting to grips with what it might mean for them. Uncertainty is the only certainty!
Our role will be to keep our members briefed as things progress. At our National Fundraising Convention, we held a session on the topic, which unpicked how this might impact all aspects of charity’s work. We have also set up a discussion group on LinkedIn so that people can inform us of their concerns and we will be monitoring to ensure that we can do all we can to support them.
It is also probably true to say that the majority of people in the charity sector voted to remain. At the Institute we are certainly committed to continued membership of EFA and positive working with our European colleagues.
1Olive Cooke was a volunteer fundraiser and poppy seller who, after taking her own life in May 2015, was reported to have been so concerned about charities' aggressive fundraising techniques that she took her own life. Although her family stated that charities had not been responsible for her death, the story hit the headlines of the national papers and broadcast channels and fuelled further negative media about charity.