BLOG: Is opt-in the only way forward for fundraising?

Written by Skip Fidura
14/02/2017

A friend of mine told me a story recently about her experience with a charity and its fundraising efforts. This was a few years ago now, but my friend responded to a charity appeal she spotted on the train to work as Christmas time. The idea was simple enough, you could donate a ‘blanket’ to someone that needs it with a simple SMS message to the number on the poster. However, after her donation she was continually “hounded” – her words, not mine – on her mobile for months and worst of all it wasn’t even just by the charity she had actually donated to in the first place.

Two things really struck me about this story. First, that SMS is a great way to donate quickly and easily to an appeal that really grabs you, but it is a channel through which my friend will never donate again after this experience. Second, that she was reminded of this entire experience because it was Christmas time and what should have been a positive experience of doing good turned out to be quite a negative one that she is still reminded of when the festive season comes around.

I don’t tell this story to scold charities about mistakes made in the past, but to illustrate the long-term ramifications these can and have had on the supporters many rely on. Many charities have been damaged by press reports in recent years and it has affected their ability to raise money for the great work they do. This is also why some charities have moved their marketing to opt-in, meaning their donors actively want to receive messaging from the organisation – most notably RNLI and Cancer Research UK.

But is opt-in the only way forward for third sector organisation? Put simply, no.

To explain this in a little more detail, opt-in would clearly be the best practice for all marketing in the long-term. However, this shift is not essential and such a dramatic move would be detrimental for many commercial and not-for-profit organisations. There is no need for all companies to move to opt-in only and certainly not across all channels. In fact, during a recent webinar we discussed these issues and how charities must find what works for their specific circumstance with one of the first charities to move to all opt-in communications, the RNLI.

Opt-in is AN answer, not THE answer

A number of charities have moved to an opt-in only regime, but their journeys have rarely been smooth. In fact, most understand that they will lose a significant proportion of their supporters and, as a by-product, the money they are able to raise. The hope (ideally backed by a thorough business case) is this will do much to enhance their reputations and therefore payback dividends in the long term.

A first concern for many charities is this loss of potential donors and whether they will be able to continue and re-grow the potential loss of support. Another issue is the IT and technological challenges organisations face in trying to track whether or not they have the correct opt-ins for new or existing supporters over the various channels they may use.

One challenge faced by the RNLI is that some supporters may not understand they even need to opt back in, and assume that their strong support means they have already opted-in. Conscious of these issues, the RNLI placed rather conservative estimates of around 255,000 donors opting back. Happily, they nearly doubled this with 450,000 re-engaging with the charity.

Opt-out is not a dirty word

How businesses and charities deal with data is important. To build trust, organisations must be honest, transparent and give individuals control. Organisations do not need to go opt-in only to achieve this.

One example could be a charity contacting its database to explain it would like to keep in touch, and asking them through which channels they would prefer to be contacted. This gives the supporter control and the charity the ability to use those channels its supporters prefer.

Charities need to get their data collection statements and privacy policies right. Charities should not hide what they do with data but make it clear so donors have no doubt. All charities should be able to behave in a way that we want them to. For example, keeping in touch with donors that may not have opted-in through a direct mail message at Christmas to update them on the year of great work may well be appreciated. It’s important that supporters have the ability to tell you if they no longer want to receive such messages at all.

Ultimately, opt-out should not be seen as a dirty word.

The world has fundamentally changed for all fundraisers and for marketers too. Consumers are more savvy about where, when and why they share they data. They will simply not accept the justification for charities playing slightly looser with their personal data due to the worthy work they do. The good news is that they do understand the important work the sector does. So whether you have plans to move completely opt-in across all channels or to continue with a mix of consents depending on the channel, make sure your supporters have the respect and control they deserve.


Skip Fidura chairs the Direct Marketing Association’s responsible marketing committee and is client services director at dotmailer



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