An external review of our casework: 2021

This is the executive summary of an external review of the Fundraising Regulator’s casework conducted in 2021.

Authored by Jon Wigmore, External Reviewer for the Fundraising Regulator

Summary

1. The complainant complained that the Wildheart Trust (the charity, registered charity no. 1171144) made false claims in its 2020 fundraising appeal for money to look after five tigers and two lions in its Isle of Wight Zoo. The appeal was triggered by a reduction in revenue following the COVID- 19 pandemic and related restrictions.

2. In their complaint, the complainant focused on two elements of the charity’s Crowdfunder that I summarise below:

  • A: The rescue claim – that the charity itself had rescued animals from circuses and needed money to rescue more; and,
  • B: The cruelty claim - that the conditions inflicted on the animals under the ownership of the circuses were demonstrably unsuitable; this included the claim that the animals had been mutilated, cruelly confined and forced to fight for scraps of food.

The complainant argued that both of these claims were untrue and provided supporting evidence, including from the circus that had owned the tigers previously.

3. The Fundraising Regulator investigated the complaint with regard to the following sections of the Code of Fundraising Practice (the code):

1.1.3: “You must not unfairly criticise or insult other people or organisations”.

1.3.1: “You and the fundraising materials you use must not mislead anyone, or be likely to mislead anyone, either by leaving out information or by being inaccurate or ambiguous or by exaggerating details”.

1.3.2: “Before you make any direct or implied claim in your fundraising which is likely to be taken literally, you must make sure that there is evidence to prove the claim”.

1.3.6: “You must take all reasonable steps to treat a donor fairly, so that they can make an informed decision about any donation”.

2.3.4: “You must make sure that:

  • complaints are investigated thoroughly and fairly to find out the facts of the case, avoiding unnecessary delay; and
  • you respond to complaints fairly and in a way that is in proportion to the complaint”.

4. The Fundraising Regulator did not uphold the complaint, finding instead that, 

“the charity’s assertions, based on its view of the facts and research, although arguably expressed rather sweepingly with a touch of hyperbole, were not misleading or likely to mislead in relation to the fundraising ask”.

5. The complainant requested external review, principally on the ground that the Fundraising Regulator’s findings were manifestly unreasonable. In particular, they contrasted the Fundraising Regulator’s comment that the charity had engaged in hyperbole, with the code proscription on exaggeration. They also pointed to the lack of concrete evidence in support of the cruelty claim; and to material supporting their view that the animals had been ‘donated’ and not rescued by anybody. In no way, they said, did the mode of transfer of the animals from the circuses to the charity resemble ‘rescue’ by the charity or any other agency.

6. After receiving an earlier draft of this consideration, the complainant sent me more material, some of which was new, and all of which they said contradicted the rescue and cruelty claims. I referred this to the Fundraising Regulator and, on 8 November 2021, the Chair of the regulator’s Complaints & Investigations Committee informed me that:

“The additional material has been considered by the FR’s investigation team and by me as Chair of the FR’s Complaints & Investigations Committee […] We have also separately sought the view of the FR’s Vice-Chair …”

The Chair summarised the outcome as follows:

“Having carefully considered the additional material provided by the complainant our view is that the material is not new and would not in any event change the position agreed by the committee in our final decision. We therefore do not have grounds to reopen the case. In our view the additional material does not constitute what we would consider to be ‘new evidence’. This is because, as we considered the case with the further information the complainant provided following our final decision, it reinforces points that were previously assessed in our investigation and does not affect the main thrust of our decision following that investigation, that the fundraising ask was not materially misleading despite the loose wording and degree of hyperbole.”

7. The Vice-Chair had also, separately, reviewed the additional material and the position set out by the Chair of the FR’s Complaints & Investigations Committee. The Vice-Chair concluded that:

“…the additional material would not have persuaded [the Vice-Chair] that the case should be reopened, nor would [they] consider [the Fundraising Regulator’s] original decision manifestly unreasonable had it been made afresh taking into account the additional material.”

8. The Chair of the Fundraising Regulator’s Complaints & Investigations Committee asked me to: 

“opine on our decision not to reopen our investigation in light of the additional material as well as the reasonableness of our original decision as if it had been made afresh taking the additional material into account”. 

This approach accords with my own interpretation of my Terms of Reference and I have therefore followed it.

9. The material put forward by the complainant after the conclusion of the Fundraising Regulator’s investigation has underlined facts that are known and/or not contested. I have not found that the complainant’s new evidence has called into question the constructions within the Fundraising Regulator’s position. I find instead that the dispute in the main arises from the opposing ethical orientations of the parties to big cats being used in circuses. Those orientations have legitimately defined the way each side has interpreted the evidence (often the same evidence), and used language, in particular the word ‘rescued’.

10. In addition, I find that, in light of all the evidence, the Fundraising Regulator’s overall decision on the complaint was not manifestly unreasonable, because:

  • The charity reasonably, and with reference to evidence, believed that the animals were rescued (I agree that they could be described as rescued and also endorse the Fundraising Regulator’s view that the charity’s sincere orientation against big cats being kept in circuses would lead it, legitimately, to interpret the evidence differently to the complainant).
  • The charity did not claim directly to have rescued the beneficiary animals featured in the appeal.
  • The Fundraising Regulator acknowledged that some of the charity’s assertions were “arguably expressed rather sweepingly with a touch of hyperbole”. As a regulator, the Fundraising Regulator is entitled and required to set thresholds for code breach findings. The decision does not, in this instance, reach the high threshold for a finding of manifest unreasonableness.

11. My overall finding is in line with that of the Fundraising Regulator’s - that the appeal was legitimately targeted at funding the ongoing care and treatment of seven rescued ex-circus animals. I noted that the rescue claim occupied seven seconds of the two minute Crowdfunder video, and that the ‘ask’ was in the main to cover care costs due to reduced footfall revenue.

12. I reach that finding while expressing reservations about the charity’s claim to rescue animals from Spanish circuses. A small element of the ask here was for money to “rescue more [circus animals] in the future”. I find that claim unevidenced as well as contrary to the charity’s own crediting of a partner agency for rescues. I therefore ask the charity, through this consideration, to reflect on how it communicates its role in rescue operations.

13. Given these considerations, I do not find that either the material new evidence test, or the manifestly unreasonable test, for full external review (that opens the door for the Fundraising Regulator’s reconsideration of the case) are met.

Biographical note: Jon Wigmore

Jon’s experience in the charity sector goes back to 1983 when, aged 18, he worked as a live-in volunteer in the Simon Community in Glasgow. Over the following twenty years he has worked in homelessness charities in Bristol, Bradford and London, latterly having trained and practised as a psychiatric nurse.

Since 2002 Jon has worked in investigative and independent adjudication roles for the Health Service Ombudsman and other regulators and providers. Between 2008 and 2011, he held the statutory role of Ethical Standards Officer under the Local Government Act 2001. This required leading investigations into the conduct of local politicians and, where necessary, taking them to the national tribunal for determination. This required careful and neutral evidence gathering and reasoning. Jon is used to being put to proof when putting allegations of code breaches before a tribunal.

In the last 10 years, working through his company ch&i associates, Jon has acted as independent complaints reviewer for the Charity Commission, the Department for Transport, the GMC and others as well as undertaking root cause analysis investigations into NHS incidents. Jon is a trustee of East Cheshire Housing Consortium, a local charity providing support and housing services to people with severe mental health problems.