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Decision on International Liberty Association

Introduction

1.  In January 2018 the Fundraising Regulator opened an investigation into the International Liberty Association (ILA – the charity). The ILA is a registered charity set up with the aim of promoting respect for human rights in the Middle East, at the same time as assisting the victims of such abuses. Our investigation was prompted by eight complaints that we received from members of the public about ILA’s fundraising practice.

2.  The complaints focused on visits made by volunteers from the charity to members of the public at their homes seeking donations for the cause. The visits were usually made by appointment following earlier contact with the donors/potential donors who had been in touch with the charity by other means, for example, in one case to make a small one off donation of £10. The complaints all contained allegations that the volunteers, who operate in pairs, placed significant and undue pressure on the potential donors while at the same time seeking large financial contributions (generally thousands of pounds up to £11,000). The pressure has been described as providing highly emotive details about the status of individuals overseas – including in some instances relatives of the volunteers themselves – and the costs involved in bringing those individuals to safety.

3.  In some cases, the complaints were made by the donors themselves. In others they were made by members of their family or friends. In the majority of cases concerns were expressed that the donors were vulnerable and had potentially been taken advantage of by the volunteers.

4.  In two cases we were told that the fundraisers had suggested that the donors obtain a loan in order to facilitate a donation. In another case, the complainant said that they were concerned the donor was being ‘groomed’ by the volunteers who regularly visited with gifts of food.  The incidents complained about took place between 2015 and 2018.

Our role

5.  We're responsible for the regulation of all types of charitable fundraising in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We investigate cases where fundraising practice may cause significant public concern. We do this by considering whether the fundraising organisation has followed the Code of Fundraising Practice (the Code), which outlines the legal requirements and best practice expected of all charitable fundraising organisations across the UK.

Our investigation

6.  We were concerned to have received eight similar complaints about the charity. It is unusual for us to receive multiple complaints about one charity and particularly for those complaints to raise similar issues. We also reviewed copies of the complaints that ILA have received between 2015 and 2017 and copies of ILA’s responses to those complaints. We noted distinct similarities in the nature of the complaints raised directly with the charity and those complaints that were brought to us. In that period ILA received ten complaints, two of which were also brought to us. Therefore, in total we have reviewed sixteen separate complaints about fundraising by the charity.

7.  We obtained evidence from ILA, including copies of their training materials, their policy on dealing with vulnerable individuals, and their complaints procedure, as well as copies of the documentation used when recruiting volunteers and the documentation used by those volunteers when meeting with supporters.

8.  We also met with two of the charity’s trustees (one of whom is responsible for the coordination the charity’s fundraisers) to discuss their fundraising practices and the complaints that we had received. We have shared a draft version of our findings with the charity so that they could comment on the factual accuracy of our decision.

The Code of Fundraising Practice

9.  There are six sections of the Code of Fundraising Practice that we have highlighted in this decision. These are set out below.

10.  Section 1.2e(i) – Fundraisers MUST take all reasonable steps to treat a donor fairly, enabling them to make an informed decision about any donation. This MUST include taking into account the needs of any potential donor who may be in a vulnerable circumstance or require additional care and support to make an informed decision.

11.  Section 1.2e(ii) – Fundraisers MUST NOT exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge, apparent need for care and support or vulnerable circumstance of any donor at any point in time.

12.  Section 1.2f – Organisations MUST NOT engage in fundraising which:

  • is an unreasonable intrusion on a person’s privacy
  • is unreasonably persistent
  • places undue pressure on a person to donate.

13.  Section 1.2i – Trustees of Charities (or for Charities without a Trustee Board, those who serve on its governing body) MUST have regard to national guidance in overseeing the fundraising activities of their Charity and any third parties fundraising on the charity’s behalf.

14.  Section 1.6 – At the time these complaints were made Section 1.6.b of the Code stated Organisations MUST respond to any complaints from donors, beneficiaries or other parties in a timely, respectful, open and honest way. Section 1.6.c stated Organisations MUST ensure that the learning from any complaints are acted upon.

15.  Section 1.7 – Fundraising organisations which are charities MUST* not return donations unless certain criteria are fulfilled.

What we have found

Summary of key findings

16.  We have found that ILA’s fundraising operation is lacking in appropriate oversight and carries a high risk to both the organisation and potential donors. We have not seen evidence that the volunteer fundraisers were aware of the need to comply with the provisions of the Code, or that the trustees ensured that the fundraising was compliant with the Code. This is deeply troubling particularly given the reliance of the charity on volunteer fundraisers for a large proportion of its income. While the nature of the fundraising model, particularly the fact that it does not involve professional fundraisers and/or external third party agencies, is presumably economical, the lack of professional involvement means the trustees are the only link between the fundraisers and the standards they should adhere to. This means that the trustees were directly accountable for all aspects of the fundraising taking place including understanding the standards required, ensuring those standards were understood by the volunteers and monitoring the fundraising taking place.

17.  We note the passion and dedication of the volunteer fundraisers who give up their time to support a cause that they have often been impacted by in very immediate and difficult ways. We recognise that the cause is, by its very nature, highly emotive. We have observed in some of the complaints that we have seen a great deal of sympathy for the aims of the charity. We are generally concerned that this closeness to the cause, and the fundraising method itself, often involving private meetings with individuals face to face in their own homes, opens the charity and the public to a level of risk that has not been appropriately mitigated or managed by the trustees.

18.  Perhaps more concerning than the inadequate monitoring by the trustees of what we consider to be a high risk fundraising model, is the evidence that the trustees were made aware of the potential problems with some of the volunteers but failed to respond appropriately. The charity received complaints dating back to 2015 in which allegations were made that donors who were potentially vulnerable were being pressurised into giving large sums of money. Irrespective of whether those allegations were found to be true, we would expect the trustees to have taken action to investigate the very serious issues being raised, particularly as similar issues were raised by more than one complaint. We saw no evidence of any such action being taken to address those concerns.

Key findings related to the Code

Dealing with potentially vulnerable donors

19.  We acknowledge that an individual can be vulnerable in some respects but that they may retain capacity to make other decisions, even if those around them believe that those decision may be unwise. We also recognise that it can sometimes be difficult to identify immediately whether an individual is vulnerable. We are concerned that the fundraising model adopted by the charity carries a high risk given that volunteers (in pairs) are engaging with individuals who are potentially vulnerable. This is particularly the case given that, in the cases we have seen, the fundraising took place in the donor’s home. No one else was present to ensure that both parties were clear on what the purpose of the meeting was.

20.  In one case, concerns were raised about the way in which the volunteers were communicating with the donor. An allegation was made that the volunteers were shouting at the individual. The charity noted in response that they believed the volunteers were attempting to ensure the donor could hear and understand what was being discussed. This highlights that clarity of communications is particularly important given that, for many of the volunteers, English is not their first language. More importantly it highlights the risk that volunteers, in their desire to press their case, become overbearing, therefore intimidating potential donors, and ignoring potential vulnerability.

21.  We have noted that ILA’s policy on vulnerable individuals appears to be broadly in line with good practice. However, the evidence suggests that there is a gap between the theory and the reality of the charity’s fundraising practice. In one case, we saw sufficient evidence to conclude that ILA volunteers continued to engage with, and seek donations from, a vulnerable individual against their wishes and the instructions of the police.

22.  While we note that the trustees say they believe the fundraising is being undertaken appropriately, given the similar nature of the complaints received from a range of sources about the same issues – namely the volunteers’ treatment of potentially vulnerable people – we suggest the pattern is not a coincidence or a case of isolated misunderstanding on the part of the individuals involved. Furthermore, we also note the lack of evidence of any kind of consideration being given to the standards outlined in the Code when fundraising. Overall, we consider there is sufficient evidence to find that ILA have breached sections 1.2(e)(i), 1.2(e)(ii), and 1.2(g) of the Code.

Undue pressure when fundraising

23.  Another theme we have noted in the complaints we have seen is that volunteers allegedly apply undue pressure when seeking large contributions for the charity. In one case, an individual wrote of being ‘intimidated’ over a six year period. Another wrote that the charity extorted money from old and vulnerable people.

24.  We consider that the sums being sought by the volunteers in itself could be seen as placing undue pressure on donors. We put this to the trustees noting that asking an individual for such a large sum as a single donation was a significant amount and might alarm the potential donor, who may only be familiar with much smaller fundraising asks from other charities. The trustees said that this could be an area where the cultural differences between the volunteers and the potential donors may have been a factor. They told us that many of the volunteers are originally from countries where negotiating sums of money is routine, and that these were ‘suggested amounts’ and not a requirement.

25.  A further, and very worrying aspect of this case, is that two of the complainants reported to us that ILA volunteers suggested to them that they apply for a loan in order to contribute to the charity. One of those complainants also told us that the volunteers had told them that other donors had taken out loans at their suggestion to enable them to donate to the charity. When we discussed these allegations with the trustees, we were particularly concerned that they accepted that a volunteer may have suggested taking out a loan when a member of the public had said that they wanted to help the cause, but could not currently afford to make a donation.

26.  We showed the trustees a copy of a complaint raised with them directly which explicitly referred to the issue of volunteers suggesting supporters take out loans. The trustees suggested that this might have been offered as a ‘solution’ in a situation where someone may have expressed their willingness to help but had said that they could not make a donation, for example, because their money is tied up. It was suggested by the trustees that this may be a cultural misunderstanding and an area where cultural training may be required, given that it can be a British trait to make a polite excuse rather than say ‘no’ outright.  

27.  The fact that the reaction of the trustees to such allegations was considered a training need and not a serious error for the volunteers involved is deeply concerning. Any suggestion of obtaining a loan in order to donate to a charity is both unreasonably persistent and places under undue pressure to donate on the individuals concerned. Such actions are clearly contrary to the Code and to the charity’s own policies, which state that anyone who is in any way apparently experiencing financial difficulty should not be encouraged to donate. Having taken into account all of the evidence, we find ILA to have breached section 1.2(f) of the Code.

Trustee oversight

28.  The trustees have told us that they believe their processes are ‘robust’ and sufficient to alert them to any situations that might be a cause for concern. We note that the main source of income for the charity is reliant on the use of unpaid volunteers, who often have a close personal connection with the cause and frequently operate in people’s homes. The very nature of the fundraising being undertaken by the volunteers limits the ability of the charity to effectively monitor the vast majority of fundraising that is taking place, and leaves members of the public potentially vulnerable to poor practice. We are concerned that the trustees have not considered, or appropriately mitigated, the level of risk that this fundraising model potentially poses to the charity.

29.  When we met with the trustees of the charity to discuss the complaints we had received, and those received by the charity, they told us that volunteers receive training that covers general fundraising principles and the charity’s values. However, we note that there were no specific references to the Code in any of the training materials or policies provided by the charity as part of our investigation.

30.  The trustees emphasised to us that the volunteers are told to encourage the people they visit to send donations to the charity after the visit rather than give them to the volunteers, and that they refer to the job of the volunteers as ‘friendraising’ not fundraising. They also told us about further training that the volunteers undertake specifically regarding British culture, which includes information about British values and behaviours around expressions of hospitality and welcome. This includes offers of food, and negotiating when discussing the proposed amount being asked for as a donation.

32.  It is clear from the complaints that ILA have provided us with that the trustees were made aware of concerns about the way the charity was fundraising through volunteers over the course of the last 3 years. While we note that it is the view of the trustees that the complaints they have received are low in numbers, as noted earlier in this decision, it is very unusual for us to receive more than one complaint and for those multiple complaints to be similar in nature. Furthermore, we consider a single complaint should be taken seriously and seen as an opportunity to learn and improve. Action on the part of the trustees was, we consider, particularly important in this case given the similarity of the issues raised by the complaints they received. We saw no evidence that the trustees took sufficient action to consider what changes, if any, they should be making to the way in which their volunteers were operating in order to ensure the fundraising was being undertaken in line with the Code. In both failing to ensure their ability to monitor the work of fundraisers adequately, and also to act appropriately on concerns where these have been raised, we find that ILA’s trustees have breached section 1.2.i of the Code.

Complaint handling

32.  We note that the trustees have told us that they believe ‘complaints are handled appropriately and corrective action they have taken in each case brought to their attention was sufficient.’ We do not agree. We have seen examples where we consider aspects of the language used when responding to complaints was not sufficiently respectful or appropriate. In one response, the charity suggested it could prosecute the complainant for asking that a donation be returned to their relative because of concerns about the donor’s capacity and the actions of the fundraiser. An appropriate response to such a complaint would have been to seek evidence of the issue of capacity, for example, asking the complainant if they held a power of attorney or if there was any other evidence available to suggest the donor lacked capacity.

33.  We also note that the responses we have seen from trustees to complainants have included reference to ‘over enthusiasm’. This again suggests that the trustees were aware that some fundraisers were potentially undertaking their duties more passionately than they should be, yet there is no evidence that any action was taken to deal with that situation. Furthermore, for a charity that has no paid staff or specific volunteers with responsibility for complaints, we would expect responses to complaints to be signed by a trustee of the charity. In one case, a response to a complaint was signed ‘admin volunteer’. We do not consider that to be acceptable.

34.  Finally, we note that on more than one occasion the charity refunded donations in the light of complaints made. However, there is no evidence that the trustees took any action in response to the substance of the concerns raised. This demonstrates a failure on the part of the trustees to identify and act on any learning from the complaints that they were receiving. For these reasons, we find ILA to be in breach of sections 1.6 (b) and (c) of the Code.

Returning donations

35.  As noted above, in some of the cases we have seen we have been told that ILA refunded some donations at the request of family members who had expressed concern about the manner in which the donations were sought and the amounts of money their relatives had donated.

36.  When deciding whether to keep or return donations that have already been accepted, trustees should ensure that certain criteria are fulfilled prior to returning a donation, including being able to demonstrate that doing so is in the best interest of their charity. It may well be entirely appropriate to return a donation but such a decision should be documented outlining clearly the reasons why the donation is being returned and any advice the trustees may have obtained from a third party, such as the Charity Commission for England and Wales or the charity’s lawyers.

37.  We have seen no documentary evidence that demonstrates the trustees gave consideration at the time to the conditions that apply when refunding donations or sought legal advice to ensure that when returning the donations the trustees acted in the charity’s best interests. Furthermore, as noted above, the fact that the trustees made a decision to return donations in those circumstances but failed to investigate the circumstances under which the donation was made is of great concern. Given the lack of documentary evidence to suggest that the relevant conditions were considered prior to returning the donations, we cannot be certain that the charity met the standards set out in section 1.7 of the Code.

Recommendations

38.  The trustees have told us that they will undertake: "development of the training in relation to British cultural norms to include an explanation that in British culture refusals may not be direct but are rather suggested in a polite and often apologetic way – so when a supporter says that they would like to help ILA but are not in a position to be able to do so or cannot afford to do so at present, this should be taken as a ‘no’; and no volunteer should ever suggest that donors consider taking loan finance in order to make donations to the Charity nor provide forms or take other steps to facilitate this."

39.  The trustees have also told us that they have already made changes to their processes to remedy the issues we have identified including:

  • No one can accept donations during a meeting with supporters;
  • A form will be produced to be given to potential donors that will include the main articles of the Code regarding soliciting donations and that donors will be asked to confirm that the decision to donate has been made with sufficient time to think about the implications of the donation on them personally;
  • The trustees will undertake to call supporters who have consented to telephone contact to discuss their experiences of meetings; and
  • The trustees will undertake personal follow up telephone calls and visits with donors in order to monitor volunteers’ performance and to update donors on projects and seek feedback on volunteers.

40.  We note the steps that the charity have taken. We consider it necessary to require a follow up report three months from the date of this decision which should include:

  • the percentage of donors the trustees contact following a visit;
  • copies of the reports of those monitoring telephone calls or visits including any learning that the charity have taken from the feedback provided;
  • any action taken in the event that concerns are identified about the behaviour of the volunteers. 

41.  Given the legal responsibility of trustees to oversee the management and administration of a charity, of which fundraising practice forms an important part, we also require that ILA’s trustees report to us on how they have ensured that they have learnt from the breaches of the Code we have identified.

42.  We also ask that the trustees ensure that all volunteers are regularly, and formally, informed of the importance of maintaining professional boundaries throughout their recruitment, training and work for the charity and the need to guard against putting undue pressure on individuals as a result of their own commitment to the cause for which they are fundraising.

43.  We also recommend that the trustees review their processes for handling and responding to complaints, not least so that in future serious concerns raised are learnt from and acted upon promptly to ensure that poor practice is not repeated.

 

Conclusions

44.  We have highlighted in our decision a number of serious concerns we have with ILA’s fundraising model. We do not consider it inappropriate for volunteers of a charity to have been personally affected by the cause of that charity – indeed we recognise that many charities are reliant on that kind of support. Nor do we consider it to be inappropriate for private meetings to take place with potential donors. We also recognise the passion and dedication of the volunteer fundraisers who give up their time to support a cause that they have often been impacted by in very immediate and difficult ways.

45.  However, we consider this investigation has demonstrated the high risks involved of a model of fundraising that includes pairs of volunteers, who are often extremely close to the cause of the charity, visiting individuals in their homes and seeking what many people would consider to be very large sums of money. Such a model, particularly given the lack of involvement of any professional expertise, does not simply carry a potentially high risk to the public, it also carries a high risk for the charity. During the course of our investigation we have not seen any evidence that the trustees recognised or attempted to mitigate those risks.

46.  We have seen, unusually, a cluster of complaints over a two year period all of which contain similar themes. We have also seen a total lack of awareness on the part of the trustees for the need to comply with the standards outlined in the Code of Fundraising Practice and a failure to recognise or attempt to mitigate the risks involved in the charity’s fundraising model.

47.  We consider our findings highlight a systemic problem within the charity both in relation to fundraising and governance. We also consider our findings need to be put in the public domain to enable lessons to be learnt more widely, in particular the potential risk to the public inherent in this highly personal approach to fundraising and the need for effective trustee oversight and control of volunteers when charities of all sizes fundraise. Similarly we are naming the charity in this summary to underline the seriousness of our concerns but also to highlight the steps being taken by the charity to address those concerns and the way in which we will monitor the action being taken by the charity.