Public Fundraising Regulatory Association annual general meeting 2015: Rob Wilson speech

Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, spoke about charities and the self-regulation of fundraising activities.

Good afternoon.

I speak to you today at what is, in my view, a ​critical ​time for charity fundraising. Charities’ hard won reputation is at ​serious risk and it is essential for the sector to rise to the challenge this presents and quickly demonstrate that fundraising is beyond reproach.

Just as there should be no room for poor practices, there can be no​ room for complacency.

Everybody knows, accepts and supports the fact that charities have to fundraise in order to carry out their absolutely vital work. Without fundrai​sers, charities as we know them would not exist. It is hard work, and those who do it well are ​very​ important.

When fundraising is carried out in a responsible way it is an admirable thing to do. However, it saddens me that the irresponsible actions of some organisations or individuals are in danger of sullying the reputation of the whole sector for a very long time, and this is indefensible.

Many members of the public feel an instinctive duty to give as much they can possibly can afford to those in less fortunate circumstances and do so willingly, it is part of their make-­up as caring human ­beings.

It is philanthropy in the true meaning of the word. I am always struck by how often those that can afford the least are willing to give the most. But this generosity must never be exploited, and when it is exploited it is inexcusable.

No one should try to deny that there is a problem here or that there are indefensible practices taking place in the name of charities. The Fundraising Standards Board has received as many complaints in the last few weeks as it normally does in an entire year.

In response, public scrutiny and criticism is at an unprecedented level. Justifiably, if the alleged unscrupulous pressure tactics employed by some individuals are true. This has no place in fundraising and charitable giving.

The challenge is for regulators to respond in a speedy, thorough and positive way to address these levels of public outrage. They must show that the values that charities put into practice in their tremendous work across and beyond the UK are equally present in the way in which funds are raised.

Charities must ensure that a respect for people and a concern for public trust and confidence are at the forefront of any dealings that they have with those who donate so selflessly. And it is about communicating this ethos powerfully to the public and, crucially, to their suppliers to uphold their values.

People are asking whether self-­regulation itself is working. Clearly, the public has its doubts as do a growing number of my colleagues in Parliament. Regulators now have a challenge, they must prove they can live up to this challenge.

I know that the charitable impact of the funds you raise are important to the people who raise them. But you need to show that you are serious about the public being treated fairly and with respect. The ​fundraising promise has never been so important for you all to abide by, both in its letter and in spirit ­I cannot stress this enough.

I have already had correspondence about areas of potential change and reform with the regulators. The industry needs to look again at its standards, and whether the public are properly represented in how they are arrived at. It also needs to look at the bodies themselves and whether they are the best way to self-regulate.

Regulators need to look at the consistency with which they are implemented and enforced, and close loopholes and expose poor practice wherever it is found.

But I would agree with Sir Stuart Etherington, when he said that charities need to take more responsibility for their charity fundraising, and ask themselves how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of their organisation’s fundraising practices.

And you do not have the luxury of time. There are demands for immediate action not words. Now is the time to step up and meet the challenge head on.

I know that fundraising is ​crucial and enables charities to carry out their marvellous and important work which changes the lives of so many people in desperate need of help. I repeat: done well, it is a skilled and hugely valuable occupation.

And I realise that there is a thin line between the right to ask people for a donation to support the vital work that charities do for the less fortunate, and the right of an individual to be left alone.

That is the challenge of the job, and face-to-face fundraisers are on the front line. Whilst many welcome the opportunity to engage with a cause that they identify with and feel passionately about, others would prefer to be left alone. This needs to be respected and the harrying of individuals is unacceptable and counter-productive.

I know there has been some ‘misreporting’ also of the facts. For example, headlines claiming that ‘chugging has been banned’ in certain town centres, for example in Croydon, are not entirely accurate. In reality the PFRA has drawn up and agreed a voluntary site­ management agreement with Croydon town centre business improvement district to self­-regulate street fundraising, including restricting the locations and days of the week when it can take place.

This is how responsible self-­regulation should work, and I welcome the joint working between the PFRA and local authorities to ensure face to face fundraising on the street is properly managed.

There are other opportunities to demonstrate responsibility, early. For instance by respecting the wishes of householders who do not wish to be disturbed at home, and in my opinion the observance of all ‘no cold caller’ stickers should be immediately observed by charity fundraisers.

I think, personally, that petty quibbles over the wording of notices is irrelevant. If a householder has a notice indicating that they do not wish to be disturbed, then my view is that face-to-face fundraisers should comply and walk away quietly.

I realise that this approach may mean sacrificing some donations but I hope that you will agree that the longer­ term reputation and credibility of the sector, and fundraisers in particular, is the greater prize.

Get this right and the scale of potential benefits in terms of retaining the deep relationship of trust with the generous people of Britain is worth so much more.

It is imperative that you go the ‘extra mile’ to uphold standards and re-establish the noble name of charity, an institution of which the British public is so justifiably proud and renowned for across the world.

I am giving self-­regulation an opportunity to demonstrate it can work effectively and make the short term and long term reforms necessary. I urge you to take that window of opportunity seriously as the window may not remain open for much longer.

I hope my message today has been clear. Change is essential. You should embrace it and lead it, rather than wait and allow others to do it for you.

Thank you.