Annus Horribilis

2016 has been my personal annus horribilis, at least in the public domain. (Privately, I’m fine thanks.)

It has been the year when two of my working-life projects have fallen apart.

First, my life as a European was cut off at a stroke by England’s vote for Brexit.

And then as an early Christmas present, the Information Commissioner decided that more or less everything that I had dedicated my working life to doing – understanding philanthropists so that charities could work better with them – was illegal, immoral and subject to multi-thousand pound fines.

The Brexit decision is too political a story for this blog. Suffice it to say that when one choses as a UK citizen to live in another EU country, learn its languages, learn and enjoy its rich cultural traditions, and feel thoroughly welcome as an immigrant, it is physically painful to know that a cabal of alt-right Ministers in Westminster are determined to throw you out.

So let’s focus on the Information Commissioner’s announcement yesterday. We would expect the Commissioner to use cautious language. She does not. She piles right into the topic by claiming that ‘millions of people who give their time and money to benefit good causes will be saddened to learn that their generosity wasn’t enough.’

This is a clear example of evidence-based policy making. The Commissioner has evidence, we assume, that there are ‘millions of people’ who will be saddened that their generosity did not suffice. Given the paucity of information on donors in the UK, it would be so helpful if the Commissioner would share this data with the rest of us.

If the subjects gave their permission, of course.

Given that we are living in an age of austerity in which the ICO’s paymasters in government (of whichever colour) are cutting back on benefits, rights and payments, I would be utterly astonished if there were even ten donors, let alone millions, who would feel that their generosity was enough. It is never enough. Ask any of the homeless people in London if it is enough. Or the 960,000 people living in poverty in Scotland.

The Commissioner then applies the same broad brush approach to what she describes as ‘wealth screening.’ The language is purposefully vague and catches within its apparent scope almost all customer-focused, relationship-building, fundraising. It appears, on one reading of the statement, that it is somehow wrong to use information including ‘supporters’ names and addresses, dates of birth and the value and date of the last donation.’ It appears that to investigate ‘income, property values, lifestyle and even friendship circles,’ may be illegal, along with the ability to model ‘donors most likely to leave money in their wills.’

Adrian Beney has pointed out in an excellent blog that this is to do not with information or privacy, but our attitudes to money.

For me, it’s an Edwardian view of ‘charity.’ It’s a penny in an old man’s hat. Thanks guv’nor. Lord bless your little ones. It is about a one-way relationship, donor to ‘charity.’

There is a load of evidence (yes, actual evidence Commissioner) that this is not how donors want to relate to ‘charities’ (or, as we now call them, non-profits, or Social Purpose Organisations.)

Here is just one of dozens of research reports I could cite; ‘Donors respond to personalised communications from charities that they have a relationship with, and prompts from family, friends or colleagues.’ (source, Bagwell, Sally, Lucy de las Casas, Matt van Poortvliet, and Robb Abercrombie. ‘Money for Good UK: Understanding Donor Motivation and Behaviour’. London: New Philanthropy Capital, March 2013. http://www.thinknpc.org/publications/money-for-good-uk/., page 3).

And yet the Commissioner rails against non-profits that identify ‘friendship circles.’

The Commissioner has, either purposely or unwittingly, threatened the development of high-value philanthropy in the UK. By using this broad language, by focusing on an evidently outdated view of ‘charity’, and above all by fining organisations that are trying to build relationships with their supporters based on mutual understanding and knowledge, she has ensured that UK charities will step back, return to the door-knock and the ‘appeal’, never knowing (because the ICO bans such research) who is behind the door or receiving the letter.

This lack of research will drive a wrecking-ball through relationships between high-value philanthropists and non-profits. It is not coincidental that so many people of wealth are now establishing their own foundations; it is already hard enough to persuade them that they should build a relationship with an existing non-profit.

Thanks to the ICO, that job just become harder.

 

Chris Carnie is the author of ‘How Philanthropy is Changing in Europe‘, to be published by Policy Press in January 2017.

5 thoughts on “Annus Horribilis

  1. Really thoughtful and incisive critique of a sloppy argument that is essentially for us to do things more clumsily, impersonally and insensitively is in some way better. Ironically the ICO demonstrated exactly what happens when you don’t bother to learn about / think like / empathise with your customers, clients…or donors.

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