Code keeps charities on right track

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Protection of donor data and effective use of social media are two of the challenges for fundraisers in the Third Sector.

Charities, and more specifically their fundraising practices, have come under scrutiny this year in the wake of the Olive Cooke and Samuel Rae cases.

When news of Mrs Cooke’s death hit the headlines in May, there was a call for charities across the country to re-examine their fundraising methods and to look carefully at the way in which they stored and used personal data.

Gavin McEwan is deputy head of Turcan Connell’s charity law team. He says that now more than ever, charities have to get it right.

“I think that the media stories have possibly overstated just how often charities might get it wrong but it doesn’t do down the fact that these are important legal principles that have to be complied with,” he says.

“Until now, I think the approach has been a bit more relaxed than it should have been. I think the coverage of the Cooke and Rae cases has just highlighted for charities just how critical it is to look after donors’ information.

“Because charities are now much more in the public eye when it comes to data protection, they do have to up their game. There has been a lot of rethinking of processes.”

The result of these two situations was an investigation into whether charities have been buying and selling personal data and whether there ought to be an “expiry date” on how long organisations can store and use the information.

While the news coverage has been primarily negative, there are positives to be taken from the situation including looking at new ways in which charities can engage ethically with donors and potential donors.

Social media platforms stand out as a particularly effective method of communication as they do not target individuals, rather posts are displayed to interested parties, resulting in a lower risk of data being misused.

“The great sadness is that charities have not come out of this coverage particularly well and have been made out to be the bad guys,” says McEwan.

“Actually they are doing a lot of good work but it has made them stop and think of how they deal with donors.

“The big positive is that charities can look at new ways to engage with donors and potential donors.

“If charities tune in much more to the rules and regulations they are subject to and abide by them, they can tell their story much better.

“I think charities need to remember that they are subject to the data protection rules and there’s not some blanket charity exemption. I think there has been a misconception about that in the past.”

McEwan highlights the telephone preference service (TPS), adding that there may have been a misconception about whether or not TPS was compulsory for charities.

He also suggests that charities are perhaps not aware of how much advice and support they can get from the Institute of Fundraising and its code of conduct.

“The institute is working hard to keep the code in really good shape and I think for any charity engaging in any kind of fundraising, the code should be the first port of call about how to go about it properly.

“I do think that charities underestimate the amount of help and support they can get from the Institute of Fundraising.”

Ken Smith is group data communications director at marketing and communications strategy specialist APS Group, which has a creative hub in Edinburgh. Smith has provided communications solutions for charities including Tomorrow’s People, the Lifeboat Fund, Trees for Life and Alzheimer Scotland.

His advice to charities is to use a professional services body to assist with both electronic and postal campaigns in order to minimise the risk of breaching data protection legislation.

“We can work with them to help them with a campaign, so if they are doing an email campaign or a request for further donations, mostly it’s just contacting existing donors on their lists,” explains Smith, who has 24 years’ experience in the industry.

“But we do work with some charities who have cold lists you can go and buy. In these instances what we have to do is to run the list through some of the preference services.

“We do an element of screening to make sure that names on the cold lists they have been provided with can be contacted. We will advise that they need to be doing that.

“If you are doing emails you have always got to give the option to opt out. It’s actually part of the rules of contacting via electronic campaigns.

“Some people don’t realise that and they will just try and do the email campaign themselves. That’s more among the small charities or companies than the bigger organisations.”

Smith’s other top tip is that charities should look at encryption in order to protect any data stored on their systems.

Sharon Kane is chief executive of Glasgow-based charity Funding Neuro, which funds research into solving the common problems behind neurological conditions. She says that for Funding Neuro, along with many other charities, looking after your donors is absolutely paramount.

“For us it’s the main priority,” explains Kane. “The research wouldn’t happen without looking after your donors. We are really careful. We don’t have cold calling, we don’t do telephone fundraising and our direct mail is limited to a Christmas appeal.

“It is absolutely paramount that we use ethical principles to target our donors.

“We follow the code of conduct and we have an opt out system for our donors. We don’t actually store sensitive data on our database.”

According to social and mobile media blog Nonprofit Tech for Good, 55 per cent of people who engage with organisations on social media go on to take further action for that cause, whether through donating, volunteering, attending a fundraising or awareness event or simply signing a petition.

For smaller charities like Funding Neuro, social media is a hugely important tool for spreading the word and engaging with potential supporters.

“A TV campaign or media campaign can be very expensive so social media is a very good tool for the likes of us,” says Kane.

“I think charities are starting to operate much more like businesses. In order to proceed you need to think of different ways of fundraising. You need to think of more novel, inventive approaches to things.

“The most successful campaigns have actually come from the supporters of the charity rather than the charities themselves like the ‘no makeup selfie’.

“We have got to get the word out there. Social media is such a huge part of everyone’s life now, particularly young people.”

Some of the editorial content in this special report has been included at the request of advertisers.