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Opt-in vs opt-out consent

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Many charities have decided to only send fundraising communications to donors or potential supporters that have opted-in to receive communications.

There is a feeling among fundraisers that they have been pushed towards this route.

However, it is not required by law and for many charities going down this route would not be feasible. Nor are donors clamouring for opt-in consent.

On 9 January 2017 the DMA hosted a webinar to discuss this point. DMA head of legal, compliance and the preference services, John Mitchison, made the case for opt-out consent and head of marketing at the RNLI, Sara Thompson, explained why the RNLI decided to only contact people who had opted-in to receive fundraising messages.

John contended that opt-in or out was never the problem regarding the scandals that rocked the fundraising sector in 2015 and 2016. As he said, opted-in marketing could still be bad and so what matters is ensuring charities are honest, transparent and give individuals control.

For example, he cited the recent example of a charity who contacted its database explaining that it would like to keep in contact with people signing up and asked which channels they used to stay in contact. Individuals could then choose which channel they did not wish to be contacted on.

What charities need to get right is their data collection statements and privacy policy. Charities should not hide what they do with data but make it very clear so donors are in no doubt.

Behave in a manner that an individual would reasonably expect you to do so. For example, previous donors may not have opted-in but probably might appreciate a direct mail message at Christmas to update them. If they object to the fundraising then an individual should be able to easily report that and stop future fundraising. Opt-out should not be a dirty word, John said.

Sara Thompson from the RNLI is responsible for moving the organisation to an opt-in only regime. The journey to opt-in was all about doing the right thing by RNLI supporters and future proofing the organisation for incoming legislation, she said.

Sara said she was not preaching that all charities should go in opt-in but that it was the right decision for the RNLI. One of the perceived benefits was to increase their response rates to fundraising and create a sustainable platform that would deliver revenue for the charity.

Internally it helped steer a consistent and reliable culture within the charity that all employees could get behind and champion. Opt-in was a policy that RNLI felt reflected their culture of integrity and honesty.

However, the policy was not universally accepted, at least not at first. People worried that moving to opt-in could lead to the RNLI not communicating with a large number of donors or potential donors.

The hard deadline of 31 December 2016 was achieved but the project incurred far more costs than they imagined. Various external skill sets had to be brought in to address technological and IT issues. Even now some of the RNLI’s solutions are temporary.

A problem for the RNLI was that their core supporter groups were not initially opting-in but they realised that this was because they were such strong supporters of the charity they felt didn’t need to opt-in. They thought that their donations were evidence they were interested. A danger of moving to opt-in is that donors and charities lose contact with each other.

Since the RNLI started moving to opt-in in 2015 they have had 450,000 people opt-in to receive fundraising communications.

Sara said “The campaign has been so successful that it has brought in a number of new donors despite acquisition never being the objective.”

RNLI wanted to their current donors to opt-in before they moved to acquisition and they had conservatively estimated that 255,000 would do so. The 450,000 that did so smashed RNLI’s initial targets.

Whether using opt-in or opt-out consent what matters is that donors feel appreciated and able to trust a charity. Supporters personal data should be kept safe and secure, and only used in a way that they expect. Fundraisers must be totally open and transparent about all their activities.

Opt-in and opt-out consent both have a role to play and fundraisers are free to choose which route to go down. Charities should not feel pressured to go opt-in, if that choice is not right for them.

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