OPINION: Fundraisers must retain control of their professional standards

Ian copyThe rules governing how fundraisers do their jobs could soon be determined by people who aren’t fundraisers. Ian MacQuillin details seven flaws in the reconstitution of the Institute of Fundraising’s standards committee.

Last week the Institute of Fundraising announced changes to its standards committee that would see IoF members – i.e. professional fundraisers ­– hold a minority of places on the 15-strong committee.

There will be seven members of the fundraising profession on the panel, leaving eight spots to be taken by non-fundraisers. There will be four ‘lay’ or ‘independent’ members, one of whom will be the chair. The four other spots will be occupied by the ceo of the Fundraising Standards Board and representatives from the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, a yet-to-be-named consumer body, and Bates, Wells and Braithwaite, the voluntary sector legal experts.

This is not a very well thought through idea. It:

Implies fundraisers can’t be trusted

Potentially hands control of professional standards to non-fundraisers

Creates a fundraising version of the ‘West Lothian Question’

Weakens fundraising’s claims to professionhood

Ignores the voices of beneficiaries (yet again)

Threatens trust in the independence of the FRSB

Is a PR disaster waiting to happen.

Implies fundraisers can’t be trusted

The move sends a very strong signal that fundraisers cannot be trusted with their own professional standards.

There is a view – first articulated by George Bernard Shaw – that all professions are “conspiracies against the laity”. The argument goes that professionals – doctors, lawyers, (fundraisers?) – are keepers of such esoteric knowledge that they can use that to pull the wool over the eyes of lay people for their own betterment. Professionals cannot be trusted to work in the best interest of their publics because they will use what they know, and the public don’t, to rip them off.

Contrary to this position is the view that the professions ethically and altruistically serve the public good.

Notwithstanding the question of why fundraisers would ‘rip off’ donors – so that their charity’s beneficiaries could have a better quality of life? – this move by the IoF suggests that they view their own profession as some sort of conspiracy against donors.

At a time when the fundraising profession is supposedly trying to rebuild public trust, this sends a message that the only way so-called ‘professionals’ in fundraising can be trusted is if they have lay people (those against whom fundraisers ‘conspire’?) looking over their shoulders to make sure they behave themselves.

Potentially gives control of professional standards to non-fundraisers

There is nothing wrong in principle with having lay or independent members involved in the committees of professional bodies, even on their standards committees. Many do. For example, the standards committee of the General Optical Council, the regulatory body for optometrists and opticians, contains three lay members out of a total of 11, the other eight all being members of the profession (thanks to Claire Routley for this example).

However, the Committee of Advertising Practice, which sets the advertising codes of practice that the Advertising Standards Authority enforces, is composed entirely of industry representatives, while the committee responsible for professional practice at the Royal Institute of British Architects also appears to be composed entirely of professionals.

The issue here is not that the standards committee will now contain lay members; it is that fundraising professionals will be in a minority on the body that sets their own standards, whereas on the standards committee of the General Optical Council, members of the profession outnumber lay members by almost 3:1.

As professional fundraisers are in minority on the panel, there is a real possibility that the standards committee could introduce a new standard that would be carried by the votes of non-fundraisers.

Oversight or determination?

There is a difference between independent oversight of standards and independent determination of standards.

Architects are regulated by the Architects Registration Board, the board and committees of which contain many independent members (many with a self-professed passion for architecture). This is where the independent oversight of the architectural profession happens.

The IoF’s standards committee already has similar independent oversight. It is provided by the Fundraising Standards Board. The FRSB, which has no independent fundraising professionals on its board, is independent of the standards committee and can recommend changes to the code of practice.

However, with members of the fundraising profession having a built-in minority on the standards committee, we have the potential not just for non-professionals to provide oversight of standards, but to actually determine what those standards will be. That is an entirely different matter.

A ‘consumer protection block’

‘Determination’ of standards by nonprofessionals could come about because there is the potential for a ‘consumer protection block’ of at least six members to develop on the committee.

There will be four lay members who will have been appointed to the committee specifically to represent the public. We can add to these the representative from the consumer protection organisation (does what it says on the tin). And then there is the ceo of the Fundraising Standards Board.

If we were in any doubt, then the events of the last few weeks have confirmed that the FRSB is first and foremost a consumer protection agency (I’m not criticising the FRSB for doing this, simply pointing out that this is what it does). Its constituents are donors and if donors complain, then the FRSB will represent those complaints and seek redress. The FRSB doesn’t need to balance the redress it seeks with the long-term effects on fundraising, because that’s not its job. Some other body can consider that.

However, the body that ought to be doing this – the standards committee – now contains up to six members who may not be inclined to consider that balance, because that is not what they have been put on the committee to do. Currently the FRSB’s ceo is a non-voting observer to the standards committee. But under the new arrangement he will be a voting member. So now the FRSB is in the position that it can recommend code changes to the standards committee, and then vote in committee about whether those changes should be adopted.

We potentially have seven professional fundraisers on one side, and up to six in the ‘consumer protection block’ in the other. That would leave the representatives from Bates, Wells and Braithwaite and the PFRA to exercise their votes. If the solicitor sided with the consumer protection block, that would leave PFRA with the deciding vote. And that leads us to…

Fundraising’s West Lothian Question

Hidden in the constitution of the new committee is fundraising’s own West Lothian Question, which ask whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on matters relating only to England.

The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, which regulates only the niche area of face-to-face fundraising (street and doorstep, but not on private sites), will be a full voting member of the standards committee. However, the Advertising Standards Authority (which regulates all charity advertising) and bodies such as the Charity Retail Association, don’t have a vote.

So when the committee comes to vote on new standards for, say, corporate partnerships, or premium enclosures in mail packs, will the PFRA exercise a vote on fundraising matters in which it has no direct regulatory or best practice interest? On what authority and by what right does the body that regulates street fundraisers set the standards that must be adhered to by trust fundraisers?

It’s not beyond possibility that the PFRA could face a conflict of interest when required to vote on the standards of certain types of fundraising – doorstep clothes collections, for example. The outcome of such a vote could have a material impact on the activities of PFRA members that practice doorstep F2F.

In any of these cases, will the PFRA abstain from voting? If it does, then it greatly increases the chances of the ‘consumer protection block’ on the standards committee gaining a majority in any vote. There could then be seven fundraisers versus six consumer protectionists and, potentially, the legal representative from BWB. In such a case presumably the independent chair would have the casting vote.

Weakens fundraising’s claims to professionhood

One of the defining characteristics of a profession is that that its members are able to exercise ‘professional autonomy’. This is the freedom to make decisions without being beholden to any employer or other stakeholder: they are able to exercise their own judgement.

For example, a surgeon will decide to perform an operation based solely on the best interest of her patient. She has ‘professional autonomy’ to make that decision and doesn’t need to check with any higher authority that it’s OK to do so.

Whether or not fundraisers have true professional autonomy is an interesting question in its own right and beyond the scope of this blog (in whose interests do they exercise that autonomy, the donor or beneficiary; if the donor, would a fundraiser really have professional autonomy to reject a gift because he thought it would be more meaningful to the donor if it were given to another charity?).

However, let’s for the sake of argument accept that fundraisers do possess professional autonomy. This usually grants professions the right to self-regulate. After all, you could hardly exercise professional autonomy if some group of people outside of your profession dictated where, when and how you could act.

Delegating the setting of fundraising’s professional standards to a body that could potentially be controlled by people from outside the profession weakens professional autonomy and drives a huge steak into the heart of true, professional, self-regulation.

Why is this important? The IoF makes great claims to professionhood for fundraising and is seeking chartered status. But these new measures undermine these claims and aspirations, and in the long run threaten the public trust that the IoF maintains they are intended to protect.

Beneficiary voices are not heard (once again)

The committee will contain lay members to represent the voice of the public. I think we can safely assume this means the voice of the donating public. Why aren’t service users and beneficiaries to be represented on the new standards committee? They will have an opinion on fundraising and they may well bring a different perspective to that brought by donors. For example, studies by Beth Breeze and John Dean, have demonstrated the generally positive attitudes of the homeless to how they are presented in charity marketing.

Threatens trust in the independence of the FRSB

The ceo of the FRSB is now a voting member of the standards committee, meaning that he helps set the very standards that his organisation investigates when charities breach them. This chips a sizeable hole in the independence of the FRSB, which currently has no role in setting standards. In future, would the public be able to completely trust the FRSB to investigate a breach of a standard that it had been instrumental in setting, especially if the standard was found to be wanting in some way?

PR disaster waiting to happen

Just as former business secretary Vince Cable famously claimed to have a ‘nuclear option’ that he could use against his Tory colleagues in the Coalition government, so the independent chair of the standards committee has a nuclear option he or she could use against the IoF.

Recommendations for new or amended standards that are made by the standards committee have to be approved by the full board of the Institute of Fundraising.

Now, just suppose that the committee manages to pass a series of recommendations that call for, let’s say:

Street fundraisers to remain static and not approach people (let’s say the PFRA rep was off sick for this meeting and the meeting was still quorate)

New monthly donors must not be telephoned until three months after their first donation has been processed, to give them a cooling off period (and so lose the best stewardship window to minimize new donor attrition)

Charities should not be allowed to contact anyone of retirement age, to protect vulnerable people (and so at a stroke kill off legacy marketing).

Charities should not be able to form corporate partnerships with any company that has investments in the defence industry, to safeguard the reputation of the sector as a whole.

And any other hypothetical examples you care to suggest.

Would the board accept a string of such recommendations?

In theory the IoF board could reject any recommendation made by the standards committee. But if it is not going to accept the recommendations of the independent chair it appointed, why appoint in the first place.

Yet if the recommendations of the standards committee are continually rejected by the board, then the chair has the nuclear option at his/her disposal, because every single recommendation made by the standards committee is a potential resignation issue for the chair and other lay members if not adopted.

If that ever came to pass, the chances of it staying out of the media would be quite small.

This may be an overly melodramatic extrapolation of possible events, and a lot will rest on the people selected and their terms of reference. But let’s be quite clear about why these independent members will be appointed. As IoF ceo Peter Lewis says:

“We hope that these independent members will help us be more proactive in setting standards which take into account the views of the public, rather than simply react to complaints expressed to the FRSB or individual adjudications.”

As recent events have shown us, many people can get excited about fundraising professional practice in a way they never could about professional standards in optometry or architecture, though I freely admit that this is an assumption and stand to be corrected by people with very strong views about professional standards in the optometry profession.

It looks very much to me as if the independent members of the standards committee are being given a mandate to rewrite fundraising professional standards to reflect how the public want fundraisers to act, even if this is not how fundraisers need to act to ensure they can discharge their duties to their beneficiaries.

Let us hope they use that mandate responsibly.

Associate members


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