How to head off online complaints

A growth in online activity among charities has triggered a worrying rise in complaints around charities’ use of their social media, websites and advertising banners. But what can be done to avoid it?


Charities’ increasing use of digital to fundraise and engage with the public has brought huge benefits in terms of recruiting supporters and attracting donations.

But this growth in online activity has also seen a worrying rise in complaints around charities’ use of their social media, websites and advertising banners.

Figures published by the Fundraising Regulator in 2021 showed a 252% increase in online fundraising complaints.

In the year ending March 2021, a total of 56 charities reported receiving almost 6,000 complaints. This is the first time that online fundraising has been the most complained method of attracting donations to be reported by charities.

Public complaints direct to the regulator about online fundraising are also up. From 56 in 2019/20 to 84 in 2020/21.

The regulator has promised action to tackle this increase in online complaints, pledging to “consider where existing standards” in its Fundraising Code “related to digital fundraising are sufficient to support the sector”.

In the meantime, there is plenty charities can do now to head off online complaints and improve the public’s perception of their digital activity.

Be transparent

A key theme to merge in complaints is concern from the public that information is misleading. The Fundraising Regulator urges charities to be clear about why donations are needed and what the money will be spent on.

This includes offering online users clarity over whether money is being raised for a specific project or is to maintain the day to day running of the organisation.

Any implication that money for general use is for a specific purpose should be removed from online content.

Many fundraising campaigns have targets. Charities are urged to ensure they explain clearly what happens when goals are reached.

Pay attention to presentation

The Fundraising Regulator warns that “something as simple as website layouts can inadvertently mislead donors”. It urges charities to take time to review information provided, where it is placed and its context. This can ensure clarity over what funding will be spent on.

Attention to presentation can also ensure online content is jargon free, easy to understand and offers sufficient information to help viewers make an informed decision over whether they want to support the charity.

“Try to view it through the eyes of an individual who does not have access to any other information about the cause,” recommends the regulator.

Be open to scrutiny

Increasingly many charities, including the RNLI and National Trust, have found themselves on the frontline amid culture war debates, whether it be rescuing asylum seekers or addressing the slave owning history of stately homes.

The Fundraising Regulator urges charities to be open and helpful to those who do not want to support their cause.

“Be ready to answer questions openly and helpfully,” says the regulator, adding, “be prepared to back up any claims with evidence where necessary”.

Be consistent

The public is less likely to complain about charities’ direct mail compared to its online communication, according to the Fundraising Regulator’s figures for 2021.

This suggests that he public are more welcoming and trusting of information they receive from charities in the post.

Charities are urged to ensure their online communication mirrors the success of their mail shots, by offering the same consistent messaging as well as details around how to give, and where money will be spent.

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