At first glance, the latest figures from the Fundraising Standards Board do not make for good reading if you are a charity marketer. Complaints are up, with frequency of contact and poor data heading the list of issues consumers have with direct mail. Data protection concerns are also up, again with direct mail heading the list.
It would be easy to read the FRSB Annual Report and get gloomy. After all, charities rely on the goodwill of the public to raise funds and run their programmes. If the very activities causes use to win support risk having the opposite effect, something has gone wrong.
Yet it is easy to overstate the situation. After all, complaints about direct mail made up just 0.009 per cent of the volume of activity reported by FRSB members. At 14,903, it means fewer than 300 individuals each week found what charity marketers were doing irksome.
What's the real issue?
Even so, complacency is not an option when the complaint rate has trebled in three years. Something is up - but what is the real issue? At one level, it may be that consumers want to ensure charities are not wasting their time and money by making contact with them if they are not in a position to make a donation.
Nobody likes being asked for money when they do not have any. If the ask is coming on behalf of others who are even less fortunate, as would be the case with many third world or child welfare charities, for example, the embarrassment is even greater.
Good data management ought to help thin down the target list to ensure only those likely to give are being asked. Except that charities face a paradox unlike anything commercial organisations have to deal with - it is often the hardest up who give the most (as a proportion of their income).
Building a targeting model to identify lower income non-givers is a challenge when the granularity of the data available on the hard-up is limited. (By definition, the less people spend, the less is known about them.) However hard charities might be working to move their support base towards younger, more affluent donors, they can not give up on segments who are known and committed supporters.
Increase in charity mailings
Frequency will also be a concern when marketing activity picks up after a lull. 2011 saw an extra 26 million mailings from charities compared to 2010 - still off the levels seen in 2009 and before, but a promising sign of confidence returning. Marketing tends to lead, whereas consumer sentiment can often lag.
Knowing how often to mail and when to stop has always been a big challenge. Test cells are the only way to start to work out this conundrum. That is what good data management and marketing practice is all about.
Plus there is never an excuse for poor data. Quality of targeting files ought to be easier to maintain right now than it ever has been, not least because there are fewer house moves in the current market. Cleansing and data hygiene have to be invested in, but they are an additional cost.
Ultimately, charities have to do what works for them, balancing natural wastage against campaign performance. No solution is perfect, but if the consumer is getting more sensitive towards the contacts being made by this sector, it is time to take another look at how well it is tackling its data management.
(To read the full FRSB Annual Report, go tohttp://www.frsb.org.uk/english/about-us/reports/]