Damage to a charity’s reputation often diminishes the level of trust in the charity on the part of its donors and supporters, leading to a decline in funding. Reputation of a charity is a key influencing factor in a prospective donor’s decision to donate to that charity.
Damage to Reputation
Reputational damage can arise from a number of causes. For example, supporters might become aware of a serious incident which reduces their confidence in the charity. A serious incident at a charity might consist of fraud, theft, significant financial loss, abuse or serious harm of beneficiaries, links to extremism, investment in or support by an organization whose aims or activities are at odds with those of the charity, or loss of personal data (e.g. theft of a charity laptop containing personal details of beneficiaries, staff or donors, or the hacking of IT systems to obtain such details).
Improper Processing of Donor or Supporter Personal Data
Other matters can also adversely affect reputation, and in this post, we are focusing on one in particular: a charity’s failure to deal with donor/supporter data correctly. A number of well-known charities were recently fined by the Information Commissoner’s Office (ICO) for misusing donors’ personal data. Media coverage adversely affected not only the reputation of the particular charities involved, but also that of the charity sector generally.
The ICO found that the charities concerned had been using personal data of individual donors in ways which breached the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The breaches comprised failure to be sufficiently transparent about the charity’s use of donors’ personal data, and failure to obtain their consent to that use of data. The charities had been sharing personal data with other charities, using personal data to estimate donors’ wealth (wealth screening), and using what personal data they had about individuals to discover missing information (data matching), all without being transparent or having consent from those donors to do so.
How Will the GDPR Affect Fundraising?
These issues have come increasingly to the fore because of the impeding implementation of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will require all organizations, including charities, to comply with new consent and transparency requirements that will be tougher than those under the DPA. If a charity fails to comply with those GDPR requirements, there will be a consequent decline in its reputation because people will tend not to trust it to deal properly with their personal information. That distrust will have a clear and direct adverse twofold impact on donations. Firstly, potential supporters/donors will be disinclined to donate to the charity (or even make contact with it with a view to supporting it in some other way). Secondly, current or past donors will no longer be inclined to donate, and they might ask the charity to no longer contact them and to delete their personal information. In order to ensure that donations to charities do not fall due to misuse of donor information (and to avoid the risk of substantial fines for breaching the GDPR) it will now be more important than ever that charities review their fundraising practices to ensure that they comply with the transparency and consent requirements of the new GDPR in relation to personal data of donors and others. The ICO has issued draft guidance on data protection and consent under the GDPR, and the Fundraising Regulator has recently issued a best practice guide, “Personal Information and Fundraising; Consent, Purpose and Transparency”, available here, designed to help charity trustees understand their responsibilities under the GDPR.
Even if a charity has met the transparency requirement to tell individual donors that they are processing their data, what it is being processed for, and any other information needed to make it fair to process the data, the charity also needs to establish a clear legal basis for using the data. We will not try to cover that in any detail here, but in general terms this means – depending on the particular circumstances – either having a “legitimate interest” for that use, or consent to that use. Where consent is required by the GDPR (e.g. for direct marketing by electronic means), it will be express consent that will be required. This will be stricter than under the current law, and as a result it is now a hot topic. The existing DPA consent requirements will be tightened up under the GDPR so that from May 2018, the data subject must have the right to withdraw consent at any time and it must be as easy to withdraw as it is to give, and consent mechanisms will need to be genuine and granular (‘catch-all’ consents will likely be invalid), and individuals must take affirmative action to provide their consent such as signing a form or ticking a box.
What Will be the Effect of Complying with the GDPR?
There are two opposing general attitudes to these changes, and we would like to hear your views about them.
One view amongst charities and critics is that those outside the charity sector (including legislators and regulators) do not understand fundraising and have approached it in a legalistic way without taking account of reality, with the result that the GDPR and the manner in which it is interpreted by regulators will lead to fundraising being destroyed in some charities. In particular, they see “opt in” (express) consent as leading to decline in fundraising because it requires a positive act whereas the normal tendency is towards inertia. The argument is that when one looks at the donor experience in practice, donors do not need or want to have to opt in, and they would be just as satisfied with an effective system that allows them to opt out of contact quickly and easily. Those against the new strictures of the GDPR also point out that the burden imposed by the GDPR on fundraising involves charities having to spend a great deal of time and money working on implementing strategies and processes to comply.
The opposite view is that the new requirements of the GDPR actually create an opportunity for charity fundraisers to increase donations and contact with supporters. The argument is that by complying with the GDPR, charities will actually improve and increase engagement with donors, and will build and strengthen trust amongst existing and prospective donors, and that this will outweigh the issues raised by those who take a negative view of the effects of GDPR on fundraising. The proponents of this positive view say that complying with GDPR will entail charities explaining why data is being collected and what it will be used for, that this can be coupled with an explanation of how the funds raised will be used, and that this will encourage individuals to “opt in” to being contacted and to allow use of their data in the way the charity has explained.
On which side of the argument do you stand?