Who will the Fundraising Preference Service protect and who will actually use it?

November 2 2015 - Mark Phillips

Of all the recommendations in the Etherington report, it’s the Fundraising Preference Service that has generated the most concern.

The whole idea of a reset button that can shift people into a world where charities can’t communicate with them is pretty frightening.

Adrian Sargent summed up much of the sentiment in the sector where he pointed out, quite plainly, that such a button makes it acceptable for someone to say…

“Never tell me about the needs of others in my community again…ever…So what if people are suffering? I don’t want to know. Let someone else take care of it. How dare you waste a nanosecond of my time forcing me to bin a communication I’m not interested in. How dare you?!”

But who will the FPS protect and who will actually sign up to this sort of service?

Possibly – probably – not the people who are most committed to supporting charities. Perhaps not people like Olive Cooke.

I’m not sure if Mrs Cooke was signed up to either the MPS or TPS, but considering the number of calls and mailing packs she received, we might be forgiven for assuming that she wasn’t.

When I presented at this years IOF conference, I featured a short clip from This Morning. I've put up the complete segment below. It’s well worth watching.

You'll see that a really fantastic charity supporter is interviewed. Her name is Jenny Phelps. Mrs Phelps has given thousands of pounds to charities over the last five years. And as she says in an interview in the Bristol Post

“I get inundated with letters – usually about two a day. I can get a lot of calls each day as well. I’ve got about 50 to deal with at the moment, and that’s just from the past month or so.

“it’s definitely quite overwhelming – you start to feel very guilty. I constantly feel like I’m under pressure to keep giving – there is no end.”

On This Morning, Mrs Phelps was asked why she didn’t sign up to a service like the MPS or simply just throw the appeal packs in the bin. Her answer is very revealing.

Now I know you are busy and you might not watch the video (and it appears that ITV, in their wisdom, has blocked it) so this is what Mrs Phelps said…

Screenshot 2015-10-30 23.27.57

She didn’t want to.

She didn’t want to because she wanted to help those in need. Even though pressure from charities was causing her distress, she didn’t want to stop helping. As you’ll see if you watch the video, she wanted to be able to control the number of charities that communicated with her – not stop them all.

It appears that she’d decided not to use the blunt object that is the TPS/MPS because she felt it would prevent charities that she’d like to support from contacting her. So she didn’t sign up.

So how is a reset button going to help someone like Olive Cooke or Jenny Phelps?

It’s not.

If we are really going to protect our most generous supporters. The ones who feel they are under too much pressure. We need to put them in charge of who contacts them and who doesn’t. We need to learn why the TPS and MPS failed people like Mrs Cooke and Mrs Phelps. That means that the FPS, if it has any hope of working, needs to give people the opportunity to stop certain organisations or charities working in a specific area of work from contacting them – rather than all of them. Otherwise the reset button will simply be too draconian for many people to use.

Or – and here's a radical idea – rather than set up a whole new service, why don't we just revamp the MPS/TPS to have this functionality. Because we actually need to remember that many people sign up to these services to stop silent calls and credit card mailings rather than charity communications.

But even then, the idea of a button on a website still won't work. If you know what older donors are like and what they want, you'll know any sort of preference service needs to be staffed by sensitive and intelligent people who can be spoken to on the telephone. Real people need to be there for Mrs Cooke or Mrs Phelps to help them make the decisions that will work for them. That will be expensive. But that is what is needed.

And then – perhaps more importantly – we need a complete sea-change in how charities go about recruiting donors in the first place. The prospecting model used by a number of charities has to change.

Let me give you an example.

I have a phone in my house that I never use that came with my broadband. I can't even remember what the number is and it isn't registered with the TPS.

Every day it will ring two or three times. I usually ignore the calls as they are often silent. If I do pick one up and someone is actually on the phone, I ask them to desist from calling my number again. The person on the phone is normally calling from a foreign call centre and rather than acknowledge me, they simply put the phone down. They actually play a nasty little game, where they ask you a question before putting the phone down so you are cut off in mid-sentence. It sums up their approach. To them you are in the way of them making money.

A few days ago, I took one of these calls and engaged with the caller.

They obviously knew my name, phone number and address. They explained the call was for market research and asked me to help them by answering a few questions. I agreed. They wanted to know all about me. They asked about my age, family status, who provided my phone, internet and TV service, how much I earned, what car I drove, had I had an accident. You know the drill.

Four of the questions were sponsored by charities. I was asked whether I would be interested in supporting three very well known charities and one smaller charity that I hadn't heard of.

I asked the caller about the charities and why they needed my support. He couldn't answer my questions so I was put through to his supervisor. He also couldn't answer my questions, but pushed me to say yes to receiving "mail, email and telephone" communications from the charities. I said I'd be happy to hear from some of them but repeatedly said that I didn't want to be called by anyone. He didn't seem to listen and told me I had now opted in to receiving communications. He had a very strong accent and I found it difficult to understand him. He assured me everything was OK and then confirmed again that I had opted in to receiving communications from a wide group of organisations.

That was it from him. Instead, a poor quality, high speed tape was played for perhaps twenty seconds that listed a long list of companies along with the names of some other very well known charities. There was no possible way to take it all in. At the end of this process, the phone went dead. I had seemingly agreed to being contacted by perhaps twenty or thirty different organisations and had no idea how I could redress the situation.

There was another call. I picked it up hoping it was some form of quality control call and I could explain what had happened. It was a dead call. I called 1471 to see who had called me and was informed that the caller had withheld their number.

It was an awful process. A call constructed to exploit, confuse and ignore the wishes of the recipient. I was angry at the end of it and actually felt foolish for engaging in the experiment. But the question remained, why in these incredibly difficult times for fundraisers would at least five or six very well known charities employ a company like this to find prospects for them?

And again – more importantly – would the FPS protect me from a call like this in the future?

It was not a call from a charity nor was it on behalf of one. And quite honestly, given the fact the callers had pretty much ignored everything I'd said, even if a FPS service had existed, I'd imagine part of the process would have been to get me to agree an exemption for the charities that were involved.

So what should we do?

First off, we all have to point out bad practice when we see it. I'm going to make sure the charities concerned know about my experience. Hopefully they will reconsider using this company again.

Whilst that's happening, can I suggest that you take a look at the back of the Etherington Report. In Annex 2, you'll see a long list of people and organisations who put in submissions – the stakeholders. Get past the charity CEOs, journalists and professional bodies and at the very end and you'll see that there were just 22 submissions from members of the public.

Let's repeat that – just 22 submissions from members of public. Regarding a story that has covered front pages for months.

I'm sorry to say this, but I'm not sure if there are too many charities that really understand what donors need. If there were, we wouldn't be in this mess. There is a massive amount of evidence that donors expect very little from charities and tolerate the communications they receive rather than welcome them.

In all Bluefrog's research, what comes through is that donors want to be valued, treated with respect and listened to. It would appear that the Etherington Report has failed to do this.

Rather than simply repeat the mistakes of the past and tell donors what they want, why don't we take this opportunity to undertake some of those focus groups that the government is so fond of and find out what donors actually do want from fundraisers?

I would imagine the findings would be a little different from the recommendations we've been presented with in regard to the FPS.

Bluefrog would be happy to engage in such a study, though nfpSynergy or Adrian Sargent might be well placed to undertake the task.

Because if we don't listen to the real stakeholders – our donors – the Etherington Report is unlikely to solve the fundamental problem it was set up to tackle. To my mind the FPS, as a reset button, will simply become a footnote in a long history of charities failing to respond to donors' needs.

Charity supporters don't need a reset button. They need control. And that's what the sector – with or without the help of Sir Stuart – must provide.

  • There are also some horrifically complicated issues with address management that will be well beyond many small and mediaum charities in a sector where lack of digital and marketing skills has been widely reported. Without robust address management charities won’t even be able accurately to identify who has been in contact with them and to clean lists against an FPS list. However well intentioned, if the policy makers had consulted with practitoners they would have realised what a nightmare they are proposing which will only raise expectations and then dash them. Classic ‘operational disconnect’. After all, the MPS and TPS, as you demonstrate and I know from personal experience as I’m registered with both, have hardly been a success in stopping rogue and scam letters/calls. I’ve written my own blog post on this topic that may resonate with you! http://bit.ly/1Q5DMYb