What charities could teach Tories about telephone cold-calling | Lauren White

Charities faced merciless scrutiny over telephone scandals and are now trusted more than the government. Shame the Conservatives haven’t taken note

It’s said that rules are there to be broken – and a Channel 4 News investigation alleges that the Conservative party really took that to heart in the recent snap election, not to mention the 2015 general election.

The investigation makes several disturbing claims about the Conservative party’s approach to telephone marketing: paid canvassing, purporting to be from a non-existent market research company, and breaking data protection and privacy laws by calling people registered with the telephone preference service. The Conservative party said the call centre was conducting market research on its behalf, and was not canvassing for votes. The call centre confirmed it was employed by the party, but denied canvassing on its behalf.

But the investigation will give many in the charity sector a chill and flashbacks to our own scandal a few years ago, mercilessly dissected by newspapers for months on end. It was a time when hundreds of people lost their jobs, and one agency went from £1m profit to £200k losses in just a year, while others folded altogether. What has been learned since then? Charities adopted an open and honest approach to this scrutiny. Most took an in-depth look at their practices, and worked to make changes where necessary. As a result, there have been huge changes in telephone fundraising since 2015, and it’s a shame the Conservatives don’t appear to have taken note.

Perhaps the biggest thing we learned as a sector is not to take public trust for granted. Trust in charities was at a low of 47% in October 2015. By December 2016, it was back up to 60% and in May 2017 charities were in third place, directly behind the NHS and the armed forces. Throughout this period, the government hovered around 21st place, dropping from 25% to just 22%.

How did charities manage to turn things around so quickly? We made a decision to place supporters at the centre of our fundraising strategy. This means knowing and understanding exactly who they are, what they’re passionate about and communicating with them honestly. It also means having conversations, not simply broadcasting what you think people want to hear. As charity leaders continue to find, there are many ways supporters tell you what their needs and interests are. It’s not simply a transactional exchange.

This can be seen most clearly in changes to methods of support. The stories shared online throughout the election campaign were shown by Buzzfeed to have had a greater impact than was traditionally assumed or allowed for in polling. Issues that seemed to be non-issues elsewhere (such as fox hunting and the ivory ban) had big traction online.

This move away from traditional channels continues to be a big learning curve for charities, too. Take, for example, the effectiveness of a direct mail appeal sent in the post and contrast it with the mass mobilisation and support for Help Refugees, which is almost entirely communicated digitally, or Greenpeace’s Virtual Explorer app. Millennials are changing the face of giving through social and community-based technology. Charities are alive to the ways that digital is being used to move things forward.

Contrast that to the Tories’ attitude to young people. Not a single social post by the Conservative party encouraged voter registration and it ran a paid media attack campaign rather than offer personal, positive, engaging messages. Some may say lessons have already been learned here, with the government’s change in direction on the “dementia tax” and other major policies, but as Jim Pickard of the Financial Times reports a Tory MP saying “that’s the last time we’ll be honest with the public”, it is clear that this is a forced concession and certainly doesn’t provide the transparency people are seeking.

Coverage has quickly all but faded of this particular political story. The Conservatives are not being subjected to the same level of scrutiny as charities over their approach to telephone marketing. It’s a double standard. They should be held to the same account, but they actually also might learn quite a lot from it. Lauren White is director of not-for-profit at Puzzle and trustee for Equation

Talk to us on Twitter via @Gdnvoluntary and join our community for your free fortnightly Guardian Voluntary Sector newsletter, with analysis and opinion sent direct to you on the first and third Thursday of the month.

Looking for a role in the not-for-profit sector, or need to recruit staff? Take a look at Guardian Jobs.

Lauren White

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
What the sugar, horsemeat and doping scandals can teach charities about PR
While other sectors did not escape unscathed from their media scandals, charities can learn much from their reactions

Olivia McGill

03, Jun, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
What charities can learn from design agencies | Matt Saunders
From websites to business cards, designers can transform how charities and social enterprises work. Here’s why it’s worth the investment

Matt Saunders

21, Aug, 2017 @6:01 AM

Article image
How charities can work with tech companies
Charities know that digital technology can boost their impact, but getting started is a challenge. Here are some tips

Sam Applebee

23, Aug, 2017 @6:02 AM

Article image
Small charities miss out on donations because public unaware of them
Research to coincide with Small Charities Week shows that – aside from more funding – having a greater public profile would be the single biggest help

David Brindle

13, Jun, 2016 @10:16 AM

Article image
Local charities stretched to breaking, with half not sure of surviving
On the first-ever local charities day, our report reveals an uncertain future for many small charities, despite three in four seeing demand rise

Lou Coady

16, Dec, 2016 @6:25 AM

Article image
If charities can't inspire loyalty, 'caring capitalism' will take over | Max du Bois
Companies focus on passion and ethics while the voluntary sector strives to sound more businesslike. It’s time to fight back – here’s how

Max du Bois

18, Apr, 2017 @10:08 AM

Article image
Charities should also target Donor Dave, not just Donor Dorothy
It’s simple – if charities continue to ignore the potential male givers the competition for older women’s generosity will grow even fiercer

Peter Gilheany

25, May, 2016 @1:53 PM

Article image
Charities could lose a third of staff if they don't get a grip on digital skills
Our new survey reveals half of UK charities don’t have a digital strategy and fear losing out on fundraising income if training and funding aren’t improved

Zoe Amar

23, Mar, 2017 @7:36 AM

Article image
Hear their voices: powerful pre-election charity campaigns
As the general election approaches, we unpick four charity campaigns that are pushing their cause up the political agenda

Anna Isaac

01, May, 2015 @12:35 PM

Article image
Red Nose Day: what happens to my Comic Relief donation?
From bake sales to the bank and beyond, follow your money behind the scenes at the annual Comic Relief appeal and meet the team making it happen

Comic Relief

24, Mar, 2017 @6:50 AM