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Have charities finally regained public trust when it comes to fundraising?

Fundraising is starting to emerge from the shadow that’s been hanging over it for the past two years. The steps taken by the profession to put its own house in order are paying off and public confidence in the charity sector is returning.

The story of Bristol poppy seller Olive Cooke, who killed herself in 2015 after family and friends said she had been upset by charities constantly asking her for money, opened the floodgates to other high-profile cases that exposed questionable fundraising practices. These included allegations of the high-pressure targeting of old and vulnerable people for donations, and “wealth screening” individuals – a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

More recently there have been several cases of allegedly fraudulent online fundraising pages established to raise money for a diverse range of causes, including one alleging to help a retired police dog handler keep his four-legged friend.

But now the climate is starting to change. A recent survey by nfpSynergy ranked charities the third most trusted “public institution” behind the NHS and the armed forces – 18 months ago, they were in 12th place.

In addition, donations to UK universities in 2015-16 topped £1bn a year, and the UK’s wealthiest individuals gave a record £3.2bn, according to the 2017 Giving List.

Individual giving has remained consistent; the stunning success of appeals following the Manchester Arena terror attack and the Grenfell Tower fire – which have raised record amounts in record time – illustrate again the power of fundraising and the public’s need to give at a time of national tragedy.

Labour peer Jill Pitkeathley chaired the House of Lords review into charities’ sustainability. Its report, published in March, described the sector as the “eyes, ears and conscience of society” and called on the government and others to recognise the contribution it made.

Lady Pitkeathley, a member of the 2015 Etherington review that led to the creation of the independent Fundraising Regulator (FR) in July last year, says public scrutiny has been good for fundraisers: “I don’t think we should be under any illusion that the scrutiny will go away. Perhaps all the scrutiny has given the public more reassurance that their money will be well used”.

British Heart Foundation’s former director of fundraising, Amanda Bringans, now chair of the professional membership organisation the Institute of Fundraising, believes a corner has been turned: “Clearly things are improving. I feel optimistic – there are some big tasks ahead, but I’m hopeful that we will be able to get things done”.

Since last summer, the new regulator has considered 700 complaints and carried out 30 investigations. The public’s top issues were door-to-door fundraising, receiving uninvited emails and charity post, and street fundraising.

Stephen Dunmore, FR’s chief executive, believes the problems that have dogged the profession since 2015 are because “senior people” failed to have a sufficient level of control about how their fundraising was being carried out: “The first priority was maximising the funding … without worrying about the impact that had on the public and donor. But that is beginning to change”.

Dunmore’s priorities are donor data protection, the introduction of the fundraising preference service – where people can block all direct marketing from a named charity – the new code of fundraising practice, and the regulation of fundraising online platforms.

So is he confident that the new self-regulating code of practice is good enough to prevent statutory regulation?

“If you’d asked me that 12 months ago, I would have been pretty sceptical,” he says, “but now I’m confident this can work. The next year will be the test”.

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