Fundraising Regulator’s Annual Complaints Report finds complaints about online fundraising increased by 252% during the pandemic

Online fundraising was the most complained about method of fundraising during the height of the pandemic, according to the Fundraising Regulator’s latest Annual Complaints Report.

From 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, 56 of the UK’s largest fundraising charities reported 5,836 complaints about online fundraising to the Fundraising Regulator, which is a 252% increase on the figure reported in the previous year. 

Online fundraising methods include social media, charity websites and advertising banners. It is the first time in four years that online fundraising is the most complained about method reported by the sample charities.

Yet despite the increase in complaints, the number reported by charities about online fundraising is relatively small when compared with the level of activity carried out. The report finds that 1 in 1,886,192 impressions received a complaint. 

Over the same period, the Fundraising Regulator received 84 complaints from members of the public about digital fundraising methods, which is an increase from the 56 complaints we received last year. 

The increase in online and digital fundraising complaints aligns with how charitable fundraising activity shifted during the pandemic. When restrictions on person-to-person contact were put in place, many charities increased their use of online fundraising, while public fundraising methods, such as events fundraising, street fundraising and door-to-door fundraising were paused.

Over the next year, we will focus on supporting the sector to achieve good standards of fundraising in this area, and to understand the risks that this method can involve. This includes a review of the Code of Fundraising Practice in 2022, which will consider whether existing standards in the code related to digital fundraising are sufficient to support the sector, or whether changes are needed in this area. 

Other methods of fundraising reported by charities as receiving a high number of complaints were addressed mail, with 3,687 complaints, and corporate fundraising, with 2,504 complaints. These were the second and third most complained about methods respectively. 

The report also finds that the total number of complaints received by the sample charities was down during the pandemic. In 2021, 17,800 complaints were received, which is down by 4% on last year’s figure. This decline is mirrored in the complaints about charitable fundraising reported by the Fundraising Regulator; we closed 362 complaints during 2020/21, which is down slightly on the 368 the previous year. 

For the third year in a row, charity bags were the most complained about method of fundraising to us, receiving 105 complaints in 2020/21. The second most complained about method was digital and the third was addressed mail.

The most common cause of complaint across all fundraising methods we received was misleading information – which could involve unclear claims about why donations are needed or how they will be spent, or a failure to present information that allows the donor to make an informed decision. 

Our Annual Complaints Report analyses complaints made to the Fundraising Regulator and complaints received by 56 of the UK’s largest fundraising charities. The report records data from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021. This data covers the period in which the UK entered national lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Our Chief Executive, Gerald Oppenheim said:

“The Annual Complaints Report provides us with a really important overview of how the fundraising landscape has changed over the past year. This report is an early indicator of the impact of the pandemic on the charity sector and it is a vital tool to help us understand where the sector needs to improve its fundraising practices. 

“It is encouraging to see that the overall number of complaints about charitable fundraising continued to decline during the pandemic, which shows that good fundraising practice has prevailed at a time of unprecedented challenges for the sector.

“We will continue to work closely with charities to support them in some of the areas the report has identified – particularly in relation to online fundraising – and make sure both charities and the public are equipped with the tools to fundraise, and donate, safely.”