Fundraising agencies need to be accredited in order to weed out poor practice and build trust in the sector, says Dominic Will.
When you look back on the nature of many charity and third-party relationships, you could argue that the sector has been a sitting duck, waiting for media storms to arrive.
Why? Because initiating conversations between people, be it on the telephone, on the doorstep, on the street or in any other environment carries a huge number of variables. In attempting to inspire members of the public to give and create a flow of capital to organisations, the fact is that some things do and always will go wrong. We’ve seen some pretty serious issues highlighted – and sometimes misrepresented – in the press and this has been hugely damaging for the sector as a whole.
But the real danger is that, unless things change, anyone who makes a mistake (no matter how small) can be tarred with the same brush and risks bringing the sector into disrepute.
Of course, every organisation needs to look continually at how they do things and make sure they have robust processes in place to ensure standards are maintained. And yet, it is not enough just to have best practice for fundraising. We need to build far better understanding about how things actually work between agencies and charities and, most importantly, have a centralised accreditation system that ensures third parties meet standards and can demonstrate this to others.
This requires a positive and open organisational culture that doesn’t shy away from difficult questions, robust policies and standards, and a willingness to be held accountable.
When the Daily Mail and others honed in on fundraising – among other things – last year, the sector battened down its hatches, which only served to cause more confusion. The reality dawned that many charities didn’t know enough about the third parties they were working with and they distanced themselves instead of asking questions they should have asked a long time ago. What are their policies and procedures? Are fundraisers employed? How are they paid? How are they trained and monitored?
Without knowing the answers, they couldn’t counter criticism. They first had to get to know their own partners better. They needed to develop complete confidence in anyone who communicates with their supporters, carrying their brand and reputation with every ask.
Currently, the focus tends to be on service-level initiatives rather than longer-term indicators and this needs to change. Charity partners must have an understanding of all the issues that might impact the donor experience.
I don’t just mean fundraising specifics, but the wider organisational culture. If that culture is lacking, this will inevitably impact the standard of service and, ultimately, the supporter experience. Already, we are seeing change. Over the past year running a face-to-face agency, we have seen a huge increase in the interest and engagement with charity staff and senior executives, with trustees visiting our offices, shadowing our fundraisers and allowing us to come and discuss fundraising with boards. The Institute of Fundraising has also published new guidance in this area. But there is more progress to be made if the sector is to be able to protect itself.
What we need is an independently audited system that enables charities to work with approved agencies, with policies in place for all aspects of their work, ranging from employment practices and service level agreements to data security measures and quality assurance schemes.
This needs to be a robust accreditation system demanding rigorous standards from anyone in fundraising, setting the framework for recognisable compliance programmes. A system that stands up to scrutiny. If the sector fully commits and invests in this approach, that investment will bring about long-term positive returns.
We mustn’t lose faith in what we do best, which is to engage with thousands of people every day and provide the opportunity to give. This must be delivered with passion for the cause and care for the public. But, without deeper two-way relationships and a central structure that allows us to demonstrate our commitment to rigorous policies through a professional body, we remain vulnerable and risk the very future of public fundraising.
This feature first appeared in Civil Society’s Agent Provocateur section in September 2016.