How your charity can learn from the complaints it receives about charitable fundraising

19 October 2021
Governance and Compliance
Standard Content
An online donate button on a mobile phone

In this blog Catherine Orr, Head of Casework at the Fundraising Regulator, explains what charities can learn from the regulator’s Annual Complaints Report 2020/21 and how they can apply the insights to their own fundraising activities.

It’s rare that anyone would admit to being pleased when they receive negative feedback, yet there are always opportunities to learn from the complaints your charity receives.

The casework team at the Fundraising Regulator respond to hundreds of complaints about charitable fundraising every year. In our Annual Complaints Report we share our complaints data, together with data reported by a sample of the UK’s largest fundraising charities, to help the sector identify areas that may require specific expertise, extra thought and planning to get right.

This year’s report analyses complaints between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021 and tells the story of how the pandemic shaped complaints about charitable fundraising.

Complaints made to charities highlight the importance of upskilling online

We know many charities stopped or reduced activities involving in-person contact during the pandemic. This is mirrored by a reduction in complaints charities reported about methods such as door-to-door, private site, street and events fundraising compared to 2018/19.

However, for the first time in four years, online fundraising was the most complained about method to the sample charities. The data shows a 252% increase in complaints about online fundraising (social media, websites and advertising banners) since last year to 5,836 in total.

This isn’t unexpected as research suggests many charities increased online fundraising while in-person activities were paused, and the number of complaints is relatively small when compared with the total volume of activity. Nevertheless, the increase in complaints shows the importance of upskilling in this constantly evolving area.

Common themes and developing trends you should be aware of

Over the same period, the Fundraising Regulator received 84 complaints about digital fundraising (donation pages, online platforms, email and social media). This is an increase from the 56 complaints we received in 2019/20, making digital our second most complained about method. For the third year in a row, most people complained to us about charity bags, with 105 complaints in 2020/21. The third most complained about was addressed mail, with 40 complaints.

Charity bags, digital and addressed mail fundraising have all featured within the top 10 most complained about methods to the Fundraising Regulator in previous years. This highlights the importance of not becoming complacent in complying with the relevant standards and guidance.

Also, this year lotteries entered the top 10 list for the first time. Most complaints we received were due to a general dislike of the method, but some people were particularly concerned about whether lotteries were being run fairly, in line with the law. We’ve produced more information about what to consider when fundraising in this way.

Avoid misleading donors

The most common reason for the complaints the Fundraising Regulator received across all fundraising methods was misleading information. This could involve unclear claims about why donations are needed or how they will be spent or presenting information in a way that prevents people making an informed decision to donate. You can access our top tips on avoiding misleading donors, by downloading the report.

Applying learning from complaints

The good news is that good practice seems to have prevailed as the total number of complaints reported by fundraising charities has declined by 4% on last year to 17,800 in total. Nevertheless, charities should ensure they understand the risks and public appetite for the way they fundraise, and continue to learn from complaints, so they can provide assurance to the public that they are fundraising in an appropriate way.

See section 2 of the Code of Fundraising Practice for the standards that apply to complaints handling and refer to our good practice guidance for advice on how to improve. We’ve also produced a webinar which you are welcome to use when training your staff, trustees and volunteers.

Over the next year we’ll consider whether existing standards in the code on digital fundraising are sufficient, or whether changes are needed to better support the fundraising sector. We also intend to engage with the sector about the complaints data we collect from charities to inform the production of future complaints reports. So, watch this space for more details over the coming months.

Catherine Orr
Catherine Orr
Head of Casework, Fundraising Regulator
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