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

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Lauren White

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