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Why did GDPR discriminate against charities?
Why did GDPR discriminate against charities?

This morning, the whole nation breathed a humongous sigh of relief: no more junk emails. No more hours spent wading through our inbox trying to find the content that we actually want to read. No more pestering, bleeding-heart emails from charities trying to shame us into parting with our money. Bliss.

Like many agencies, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time with our charity clients supporting them through the trauma of GDPR. And like many agencies, we’ve encouraged them to see this as an opportunity to enhance the relationship with their supporters. We all know that Good Dialogue leads to Profound Relationships. We just don’t believe that it needed an onerous and costly regime to achieve this. This particular sledgehammer was not needed to crack the nut.

Based on soundings from a number of charities, I would estimate this process may well have cost the top 500 charities around £200m. That’s not counting the other 10,000 charities with an income of £500,000 or more, who have also undertaken this exercise. And this takes no account of any fundraising potential that has been lost. So this is a monumental hit on the charity sector.

No one doubts the need to ensure that we know what data is being held on us and that it is properly protected. Indeed, I believe the cyber defence aspects of GDPR are far more important than the need to obtain permission to email someone. But on this issue of email contact, bizarrely GDPR has discriminated against charities, in favour of businesses.

You may have seen in the tsunami of last minute opt-in email requests that many businesses have only sent you a notice about an update to their privacy policy. They’ve been able to do this because you are customer of theirs. Relying on the soft opting-in principle, businesses have not had to ask for an opt-in from someone who has been a client. So all those commercial brands with whom you have spent money, have been able to avoid begging you to allow them to continue to send you more promotions by email. Wonderful news for the digital marketing managers at Amazon & co.

Charities on the other hand have had to behave properly. Every donor – someone who has given money to the charity – has had to be opted-in to enable the charity to continue to contact them by email. And why might the charity have been keen to use email as the primary channel to contact you? Because we don’t them to waste money on printing and postage!

It gets even worse. To really behave properly, a charity should have asked what type of information the donor would like to receive by email, e.g. project news, events, fundraising. So even if the donor opted-in to receive emails, they might well have not ticked the fundraising box. This would mean no further fundraising appeals could be sent by email to that donor.

Here’s the final nail in the coffin. Many recipients of the opt-in email campaigns from charities have not even opened them. Not at all surprising, given the deluge. But without a positive opt-in, emailing is over baby. Email supporter lists have been decimated – in some instances by over 80%. An attempt has been made to console charities by saying that ‘well, yes your list has almost vanished but those left are really the ones who care, so now you can focus efficiently on them’. This clearly cannot be the case.

It is of course true to say that charities can still send postal communication to those who have given them money in the last two years – pleading ‘legitimate interest’ – but how many have the funds to do this several times a year? How many trustee boards will sign up to such expenditure? And I suspect if donors start hearing from their charity several times a year through their letterbox, the level of complaints against charities for pestering and wasting money will rise considerably.

Good donor care is fundamental to increased positive returns for a charity. But here we have a regime, designed to do lots of good things (e.g. putting an end to those really irritating PPI emails and other spam merchants) that has discriminated against and damaged charities. Supporters do want to hear how their charity is doing and when it might need some more support from them. They also want to see their charity doing this in a cost-effective way, preferably for free. Email communication does this. And I’m pretty sure the overwhelming majority of supporters would not have wanted to see their charities clubbed into submission at such great expense.


Lionel Salama

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