Webinar: Handling complaints

As part of our commitment to support organisations to meet the fundraising standards in the Code of Fundraising Practice, we have produced this webinar to help you understand how charities should manage complaints received about fundraising, monitor the complaints handling of third-party fundraisers and use learning from complaints to inform future fundraising activity.

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Charities must have a clear and publicly available complaints procedure, ensure complaints are investigated and responded to, and regularly review any lessons to be learnt. Though operational staff may deal with the day-to-day handling of complaints, ultimately, trustees are legally accountable for their charity’s actions and their responsibilities include addressing complaints and concerns about fundraising as set out in section 2 of the code.

This webinar may be especially helpful for people responsible for charity complaints handling as an introduction to the fundraising standards. Charities are welcome to use this material as part of their induction and training. You can also refer to our complaints handling guidance.

Got feedback? Contact us through our enquiries form to let us know your thoughts on this video and what other topics will be helpful to explore in future webinars.

Welcome to this webinar on ‘Handling complaints’, part of our webinar series on ‘Understanding the Code of Fundraising Practice’. This video has been produced by the Fundraising Regulator – the independent regulator of charitable fundraising in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. By the end of this video, you should understand:

  • what a complaint is;
  • how charities should manage the handling of complaints received about fundraising; 
  • how charities should monitor the complaints handling of third-party fundraisers; and,
  • how charities can use learning from complaints to help them with future fundraising activity.

So, what is a complaint? 

A complaint can generally be defined as 'an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about actions taken or a lack of action’. Where it is unclear whether a communication is a concern or a complaint, it’s generally best to err on the side of caution and treat it as a complaint.

The Code of Fundraising Practice sets out the responsibilities that apply to fundraising carried out by charitable institutions and third-party fundraisers in the UK. Standards relating to addressing complaints and concerns about fundraising are in section two, 'responsibilities of charitable institutions and those who govern them’. 

Though operational staff may deal with the day-to-day handling of complaints, ultimately, trustees are legally accountable for their charity’s actions and their responsibilities include addressing complaints and concerns about fundraising. 

The code says that trustees should ensure their charities:

  • have a clear and publicly available complaints procedure, which must also apply to third-party fundraisers (standard 2.4.1)
  • make sure their fundraisers can explain to people how to make a complaint (standard 2.4.2) ensure complaints are investigated and responded to thoroughly and fairly (standard 2.4.3)
  • regularly review any lessons to be learnt from complaints and use that learning to help them with future fundraising activity (standard 2.4.4); and,
  • have a clear and published procedure for members of staff and volunteers to report any concerns (standard 2.4.5).

  The Code of Fundraising Practice applies across the UK. 

  • The Fundraising Regulator deals with complaints about fundraising in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and fundraising in Scotland where it is carried out by charities registered primarily with either the Charity Commission for England and Wales or the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland. 
  • The Scottish Fundraising Standards Panel deals with complaints about fundraising by charities only registered in Scotland. We work closely with the Panel on issues including changes to the code.

So, let’s explore what the Code of Fundraising Practice says about complaints in more detail.

The code says that charities must have a clear and publicly available complaints procedure which must also apply to third-party fundraisers. 

Think about the wording you use in your procedure and whether people will understand it – you could use the principles of Plain English to help. Your procedures should also be easily accessible, for example, published prominently on your website. 

Your charity’s complaints procedure should set out what it is able to do, and what it is not able to do when it receives a complaint. Include details like how long you aim to take to respond, and any possible remedial action you can offer, such as a written formal apology.    If someone wants to make a complaint, we generally advise them to speak to the organisation they have a complaint about first, as this is often the quickest way to resolve the complaint and for the organisation to identify learning. However, if a complainant does not receive a response or is unhappy with the response received, they can contact the relevant regulator. 

Therefore, if your organisation is unable to resolve a complaint, your complaints procedure should signpost people to raise their concerns with the Fundraising Regulator or the Scottish Fundraising Standards Panel.

Charities should let people know how they can request any additional support they may need to access their complaints process. Think about the methods you use to receive or respond to complaints, and whether these are accessible. For example, if you say people can only complain to you by email, you may exclude people who do not have access to the internet. 

You may need to make reasonable adjustments for anyone that faces difficulties pursuing their complaint because of a disability. For example, providing responses in large print or another accessible format.

Consider how you may need to adjust your processes to take into account the needs of people who may be in vulnerable circumstances. By this, we mean ‘a state in which a person is especially susceptible to harm due to their personal circumstances’. 

Vulnerability can be temporary, or longer term. These circumstances are sometimes very difficult to spot and you may not recognise them straight away. Nevertheless, people who are vulnerable should be protected and informed – you need a flexible approach and good judgement to assess what is the best way to approach each situation. Having a policy on how to recognise indicators of potential vulnerability can provide a framework for your decision making. 

Charities must make sure that their charity’s staff and volunteers are aware of the fundraising standards and ensure they are adequately trained and monitored if the standards are relevant to their responsibilities. Fundraisers must also be able to explain to members of the public how to make a complaint. 

Charities should ensure that employees and volunteers are aware of what they should do if they receive a complaint, and who the complaint should be passed to within your organisation. You could include this information in your induction training, and in any key training documents.

If a charity uses third parties to fundraise, you must make all reasonable efforts to monitor whether third-party fundraisers or commercial partners are keeping to the code and the agreement you have with them. 

Charities should ensure that third-party staff are also aware of what they should do if they receive a complaint and who the complaint should be addressed to. You could check this by reading and reviewing any relevant policies and procedures a third-party has in place to protect the public, including handling complaints and whistleblowing.

The code says charities must make sure that complaints are investigated thoroughly and fairly, avoiding unnecessary delay. This may involve speaking to staff, volunteers, the complainant and any third parties who are involved.   When you acknowledge a complaint has been received, explain what your process is, and give a timeframe for your response. If it's not possible for you to give exact timings, let the complainant know how often you intend to keep them updated.   Make sure you listen to complainants and understand why they are unhappy, and how they believe you can resolve the problem. Ask for further information if you need it, and if you are unable to resolve the complaint, make this clear to avoid confusion.    Where possible, make sure complaints are investigated by someone who is independent from what is being complained about. This could be someone from another team or a senior manager or board member, depending on the severity of the allegations. If this is not possible, consider whether you could ask an independent third-party to investigate for you.   If a complaint is about a member of staff or a volunteer, or something that they were responsible for, they should have an opportunity to respond to the allegations. Let staff or volunteers know about the substance of the complaint, where it is appropriate. If you need to disclose a complainant’s identity in order to investigate, ask for their consent to do so. 

If a complainant requests anonymity or does not provide you with consent to disclose their identity, this may affect how far you are able to deal with the issue. If this is the case, inform the complainant about the limits of what you are able to do.

The code says charities must respond to complaints fairly and in a way that is proportionate. 

When responding to a complaint, openly answer all the substantive points and explain why your organisation considers the points are justified, or not. You should always be respectful and acknowledge the experience of the complainant, whether you believe the complaint is justified, or not.   Charities should take responsibility for the actions of their staff and those acting on their behalf – this includes volunteers and third parties. When responding to a complaint, acknowledge if things have gone wrong and take proportionate action to put things right. This includes apologising where appropriate. You should also tell the complainant about any lessons that have been learnt and any changes you have made to services, guidance or policy because of their complaint.

If complainants display abusive or unreasonable behaviour, you may choose to restrict your contact with them, or not to proceed further. Your complaints process should give guidance on when you will consider contact to be unreasonable and what actions you may take in these circumstances.  

The code says charities must also have a clear and published procedure for members of staff and volunteers to report any concerns they have about fundraising practices. You should be open to learning from internal concerns, just as much as from those from outside your organisation.   Whistleblowing disclosures can help detect serious problems such as fraud, safeguarding concerns and mismanagement in charities. People raising concerns by whistleblowing have some protection in law under the Public Interest (Disclosure) Act if the concerns they report meet certain conditions, and your policy should take account of this.   Fundraisers who feel they are being pressured to act in a way that is not in line with the code can contact the Fundraising Regulator to raise their concerns. However, we cannot investigate complaints about employment or contractual matters.

Finally, the code says charities must regularly review any lessons to be learnt from complaints and use that learning to help them with future fundraising activity.   Complaints should be regarded as a source of learning and improvement. Charities should keep a record of the complaints they receive, the outcomes of their investigations and the reasons for their decisions. 

Charities should regularly review the complaints they receive to identify any trends or wider learning. This should be used to improve your service and the experience of donors.

Boards and senior management teams should receive regular reports on the number and nature of complaints their charity receives. If a complaint has led to a change in services, policies or procedures, you should record this and may wish to add a specific item to your risk register to keep track. 

Any serious incidents emerging from complaints may need to be reported to the UK statutory charity regulators, or even the police, depending on the nature of the allegations.

Under Section 13 of the Charities (Protection and Social Investments) Act 2016, registered charities in England and Wales which have their accounts audited (where the gross income is over £1 million) are required by law to provide statements on specific areas of their fundraising activity in their annual report. 

This includes a statement on the number of fundraising complaints your charity receives, as well as the number of complaints received by any organisation working on its behalf.

Some charities also choose to report on the actions that they have taken in response to complaints, which helps build public trust that complaints are taken seriously. 

We’ve produced guidance for charities on complying with the fundraising reporting requirements in Section 13 of the Charities Act 2016. You can find this on our website.

So, to sum up – charities must:

  • have a clear and publicly available complaints procedure, which must also apply to third-party fundraisers;
  • make sure fundraisers can explain to people how to make a complaint;
  • ensure complaints are investigated and responded to thoroughly and fairly;
  • regularly review any lessons to be learnt from complaints, and use that learning to inform future fundraising activity; and, 
  • have a clear and published procedure for members of staff and volunteers to report any concerns.

Eligible organisations in England and Wales should also comply with the fundraising reporting requirements outlined in the Charities (Protection and Social Investments) Act 2016. 

Thank you for watching. This video has been produced by the Fundraising Regulator, the independent regulator of charitable fundraising in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For more advice and guidance about fundraising, please visit our website or call our enquiries line.

Through our Annual Complaints Report, we share examples of our casework, provide analysis of complaints reported by charities and share learnings from our investigations

In our complaints handing guidance we set out how the Fundraising Regulator defines a complaint and how we expect organisations to handle complaints they receive.

We have also produced good practice guidance on meeting the reporting requirements in Section 13 of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016.