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Newsnight and the Public Trust

Newsnight and the Public Trust

I’m still appalled at the Newsnight ‘expose’ of direct dialogue and door-to-door fundraising. Not the finest piece of journalism I’ve ever seen, but having spoken to them last week they were apparently very irritated by the fact that only two of the charities they approached for comment (and the PFRA) would tell them how much it cost to recruit a donor in each of these media. We seem to have learned nothing in the past ten years about transparency and accountability. The moment we start to get cagey and refuse to share information, journalists will scent a story and motivate themselves to dig deeper. My personal view is that anyone seeking such information should have the right to it – a perspective supported by our Code of Fundraising Practice which deals with this very issue. There is no rationale for being secretive and conversely a very strong rationale for being open. If we’re not we will continue to enjoy this kind of negative coverage with the consequent and considerable impact on the public trust.

One of the more interesting questions their journalist posed of me is ‘shouldn’t we tell people at the point of acquisition how much it is costing to recruit them and how long they would need to give for to recoup that cost? Wouldn’t that be truly open and transparent?’ Well here – at least for me – the waters are murkier. Legal obligations aside – my fundamental position is that if we’re asked we should always share our cost information – and if for some reason this isn’t available then our best estimate should be offered. Where I differ from the (implied) Newsnight position is that I wouldn’t be looking to force this information down the throats of individuals who haven’t asked for it.

Why? Well for the simple reason that the figures are meaningless without a relevant understanding of the context. Most members of the public are not in a position to judge whether £40 or £100 is an appropriate cost of acquisition or not. Most wouldn’t understand the economics of donor recruitment versus donor development or how returns will vary between monthly and ‘cash’ giving. Even fewer would understand how these costs might vary by cause or the profile of the charity and almost no-one would have a sense of how they might compare with the costs of other recruitment media such as direct mail.

Information in the absence of education could be disastrous. Every time the public bumped up against a reality in this way, their trust would be damaged. Yet the public and the journalists who provide much of their information DO have a right to ask. So what to do?

What is needed, I believe, is a coordinated effort to educate the public about the realities of these costs and to get basic messages across about just how efficient fundraising is in the United Kingdom and how certain channels are the only channels that can be used to communicate cost effectively with particular audiences. Be in no doubt that this stuff REALLY matters. If we are serious about developing a ‘giving society’ we need to be genuinely proactive in managing the public trust.

Unconvinced – well ask yourself whether Newsnight would have had a story if all the information they presented was already in the public domain and access to it were actively promoted by charities using these techniques. Would there then be a story? I suspect not.

Our current code of fundraising practice on accountability and transparency is a bold step forward – but it isn’t yet fit for purpose. If the real aim of this document is to build public trust then it needs to develop teeth, replacing many of the ‘shoulds’ with ‘oughts.’ Why oughtn’t we expect that every member of our Institute would be prepared to provide donors who requested it, information about their costs of fundraising? Shouldn’t this be the absolute minimum standard of behaviour?

And would it really be too much to ask for every organizational member of our Institute to link from its website to, so that donors who do have questions about fundraising can access a base level of information about how it actually works?

And why exactly is it that we can’t expect that every member of our profession (and for that matter the Boards we serve) would play their role in increasing public understanding of the realities of managing a modern charity. If we aren’t prepared to do it – who will?

In a brave new world of ‘oughts’ there would be a good deal more trust in our profession, greater participation in giving, far less media interest in how we operate and ultimately I suspect, substantively less burdensome legislation. It really is up to us. Do we genuinely care about the public trust?

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