Why focusing more on the public is good for fundraising

Stephen Service, former Policy Manager, Fundraising Regulator 

In my house, as far as football is concerned 2015 never happened. The year 2015 was when my team Aston Villa got pummelled 4-0 by Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. Not even relegation a year later could quite match the disappointment of watching that fourth goal go in at Wembley while wearing claret and blue face paint.

Reading the recent comments by Ian MacQuillin and Adrian Sargeant, it’s clear I’m not the only one choosing to treat 2015 as a historical anomaly. Their paper Fundraising Ethics: A Rights-Balancing Approach calls for the clocks to go back to a world before the 2015 Olive Cooke and Samuel Rae scandals, a world in which responsibility for the Code of Fundraising Practice is “removed from the Fundraising Regulator and returned to fundraisers”.

This conclusion by MacQuillin and Sargeant, which at least has the virtue of consistency with what they said when the Fundraising Regulator first appeared on the scene, doesn’t add up for two reasons.

"The Code never truly 'left' the fundraising community. Our remit remains voluntary and fundraisers continue to be heavily represented on our board and committees."

First, lack of regulatory independence was the catalyst for the creation of the Fundraising Regulator in the first place. After the Olive Cooke case and given the diminishing public trust in charities, the 2015 cross-party review of fundraising regulation recommended a less inward-focused regulator, noting that a fundraising code overseen entirely by the sector “remains open to accusations of conflicts of interest”.

Second, the code never truly “left” the fundraising community. Although the Fundraising Regulator took over responsibility for the code from the Institute of Fundraising in 2016, our remit remains voluntary and fundraisers continue to be heavily represented on our board and committees. As our consultation guide sets out, we work closely with fundraisers to ensure it reflects current practice and the need of charities to raise money for their important causes.

However, regulation is always a balancing act between competing interests. The 2015 review identified that the balance had been disproportionately weighted against the public: regulation did not sufficiently “represent the public interest”.  The Fundraising Regulator’s work on the code since then has focused on restoring that balance.

An outward-facing approach is beneficial in deciding how fundraising standards are set – and met. Our recent public focus groups ensured that we could test some of the prevailing assumptions in the code regarding fundraising practice against the expectations of the public. And our dual role of considering fundraising complaints from the public and developing the dode ensures that there is a better dialogue between these two functions. Our forthcoming review of the code’s structure this summer will look to make it simpler and more accessible for fundraisers and the public alike.

MacQuillin and Sargeant rightly identify that charities are answerable to two communities: the donors and the beneficiaries. But it is unhelpful to pit this as a zero-sum game in which one must win at the expense of the other. Ethical fundraising is in the interests of both donors and beneficiaries.

A balanced approach to fundraising regulation must take into account the needs of both.

Stephen Service is the policy manager at the Fundraising Regulator.