A better understanding of supporters is something to be proud of
Following from the ICO fines earlier this year, fundraising practices relating to research, wealth screening and profiling are back in the spotlight – this time courtesy of the Daily Mail*. Their story today states that 24 universities (the Russell Group) had ‘spied on’ millions of past students to look at their incomes as part of their fundraising.
The article contends that the universities “are very likely to have broken the law if they wealth-screened supporters without their consent, or without them reasonably expecting that this would happen.” We will of course have to wait for the ICO to review the cases - they have said that they will ‘look carefully’ at the evidence – but it was welcome to see Elizabeth Denham say again, in a statement this morning, “I want to be clear. Profiling individuals for a fundraising campaign itself is not against the law, but failing to clearly tell people that you’re going to do it, is.”
So, what next? On the question of ‘lawfulness’ there is a relatively clear and straightforward question to answer: the activity was against the law or it wasn’t (although of course this can get quite technical and complex and have different interpretations). We shall have to wait and see what comes from the ICO.
But, there is a further question to look at which is a bit more tricky to untangle, and gets to the heart of why perhaps this is again attracting media scrutiny: if wealth screening isn’t against the law (as long as you do it properly and fairly) is it ‘right’ for charities or universities to do it? Is it good fundraising, and what’s the impact on donors and the public? Should we be doing it is as equally important question as whether we can. And my answer back is, yes. Absolutely, we should be doing it, and not just because we can, but because doing it it creates a better experience for individuals.
Let’s start with going back to why organisations might undertake research on donors and potential supporters. Organisations need to fundraise to make a difference to communities, individuals and society. Without being able to understand more about people’s interests and situation to tailor approaches to individuals, organisations would spend more of their resources on fundraising, raise less money, and ultimately be able to do less for their causes. The research work that fundraisers and professionals do saves lives, cures diseases, and brings us culture, arts, and heritage. We are all better off because of their work.
And if you wanted any proof that this research works – check out the new Coutts’ Million Pound Donor report which shows a record high last year of £1.86bn donated in 2016, and the number of £1million+ donations is up by two-thirds over the last decade.
But, however worthy the causes, we know that the way we fundraise is as important as what we do with the money. So, is ‘wealth screening’ and profiling bad for people and something we shouldn’t do because it causes harm to donors and the public? We of course always need to be responsive to what the public tell us and how people respond to stories like this. But we know that this kind of research actually gives people a better experience of fundraising as it allows a more tailored and engaging experience for individuals, while reducing the number of generic communications or unsuitable asks – no one wants to ask for a major gift from someone who can’t afford it.
And it’s not just fundraisers who think so. Major donors who give to charities and volunteer to fundraise think the same too.
Lord Low CBE said in a research report just two months ago that you need to know the person you’re going to ask for money: “….know their business, their patterns of giving and the kind of things that interest them and be able to explain in specific detail what their money will be used for.” People expect organisations to be professional, to have done their homework, and be prepared.
We await to see where the ICO goes from here, but it is clear that wealth screening is lawful – as long as you do it right - and we’re committed to helping our members understand how to do research in a compliant way. And on whether it’s ‘right’ or not, I’m with Dr. Beth Breeze, who summed this up best in a the Good Asking research report she wrote on on this earlier this year:
…fundraisers only have two options: blanket asks – approaching anyone and everyone for support in hope they will strike lucky. And targeted asks – approaching those who appear to have the capacity to give and an interest in the cause. The first option is inefficient and irritating, and the second works.”
*You can read the Daily Mail article here