Charities minister puts overzealous fundraisers on notice

Posted on 22 May 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Overzealous charity fundraiser

Charities Minister Andrew Leigh has called out pushy fundraisers who target elderly Australians too generous to say no.

In a speech delivered this week at Fundraising Institute Australia in Brisbane, Mr Leigh said while most charities did the right thing, there were still examples of pensioners bank accounts being depleted by voluntary automatic deductions to charities.

Mr Leigh recounted the story of 73-year-old Bendigo man John Carter, whose family learned he was struggling to keep up with donations of more than $18,000 to 22 different charities set up by telemarketers over five years.

“Mr Carter recounted pushy calls, he recalled how he mentioned his pension to operators who sought to persuade him to support urgent campaigns,” said Mr Leigh.

Mr Carter’s family, who became concerned he was running down his savings to keep up with the donations, believe his story should be used as a cautionary tale to educate fundraisers.

“That question of what real donor consent looks like and how to pitch opt-out settings appropriately will be key in forthcoming conversations about how Privacy Act reform should be calibrated against the needs of small business and charities,” said Mr Leigh.

The minister used his speech to outline the importance of robust data security practices in the wake of last year’s Pareto Phone data breach, which affected scores of charities, and the work being done to introduce uniform national fundraising laws.

More than 320,000 files and the data of at least 50,000 donors were dumped on the dark web after hackers stole data from more than 70 Australian and New Zealand charities.

High profile victims of the cyber-attack included the Fred Hollows Foundation, Médecins Sans Frontières and The Smith Family.

The breach prompted a warning for charities to beware of using third- party providers who have access to their data.

Mr Leigh said overzealous fundraisers were rare, but they had a significant impact.

“On one hand, it reflects the calculus behind the important work fundraisers do to support charitable work; on the other, it paints an unlovely picture which, to put it plainly, reasonable people do not see as fair.

“I acknowledge that these are unusual cases. I should emphasise that I don’t see them as typical. But I do know that these stories have a heavy impact, which creates ripples that disturb public trust and confidence,” said Mr Leigh.

“Whether the harm stems from poorly understood opt outs or lax data security, whether it’s traditional direct marketing or digital public trust – when we see supporters and donors let down, it’s natural to take their side.”

Andrew Leigh on stage at Qld Volunteering awards
Andrew Leigh on stage this week at the Queensland Volunteering Awards.
 “But beyond that responsibility to each donor, fundraisers carry an accountability for the trust and confidence the community invests in the charity sector broadly.”
Charities Minister Andrew Leigh.

Mr Leigh took the opportunity to outline some of the principles agreed to by Canberra and the states for harmonising charitable fundraising regulation, which include:

  • Never exploit the trust, lack of knowledge, lack of capacity, apparent need for care and support, or vulnerable circumstances of any donor
  • Always make it clear whether a donation is a oneoff or an ongoing donation, and clearly explain how to end an ongoing donation.
  • Conduct all reasonable due diligence when engaging third parties to assist, support or deliver fundraising activities
  • Ensure information covered by the Privacy Act 1998 (the Act) is collected, used and managed in accordance with the Australian Privacy Principles where required under the Act.

Mr leigh said the national fundraising principles could be thought of as the traits that define not only the exemplary charitable fundraiser, but also the minimum standard to maintain a social licence to operate.

 “I think of this [uniform fundraising] as an agreement that all parties with an interest in public support for charities have a stake in – these are the assurances we gladly extend to generous Australians who sustain charities with their giving.”

Mr Leigh said it was important to remember that the fundraising principles directly commit fundraisers to close observation of the Privacy Act, which is currently under review.

  • Bring the Privacy Act into the digital age – by recognising the public interest in protecting privacy and the changing scope of entities and types of information that should be protected
  • Improve control and transparency for individuals over their personal information – by creating better notice and consent mechanisms
  • Uplift protections – by requiring entities to be accountable for handling individuals’ personal information in keeping with community expectations
  • Strengthen enforcement powers of the Information Commissioner
  • Increase clarity and simplicity for entities and individuals.

“Under that [Privacy Act] reform program, which is being led by the attorney general, the government is proposing changes to privacy laws which will likely require some change in the mechanisms that support regular giving and third-party fundraising,” said Mr Leigh.

While the federal government is still considering how to enact Privacy Act reforms in line with community expectations and increased vulnerability of personal data, Mr Leigh urged the sector to accept that change is necessary and to play a constructive role in helping to shape that change.

“Change is necessary for the practical reasons of establishing up to date protocols for managing personal information and for civilising the cyber frontier.

“It’s necessary, so that the personal information and the intentions of donors are properly respected and safeguarded, in keeping with their value.

 “But beyond that responsibility to each donor, fundraisers carry an accountability for the trust and confidence the community invests in the charity sector broadly.”

Mr Leigh said the value of what the fundraising profession delivers was irrefutable.

“Your value is not in question, but you must all feel that the jeopardy around how you create this value is intensifying,” Mr Leigh told his audience.

“My aspiration for the fundraising sector is that its impact builds as our culture of giving grows, and as our goal of doubling giving gets closer. But unless we take this opportunity to manage that jeopardy, that aspiration feels precarious.”

Mr Leigh said a 2023 survey by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner designed to gauge community sentiment about the security of personal information found that just 32% of Australians felt in control of their data privacy.

More than 84% said they wanted more control and choice over the collection and use of their personal information and 89% wanted to see a legislative approach from government to protect individuals’ private data.

“Those numbers are important because they suggest the anxieties and expectations donors will be bringing to their engagements with charitable fundraisers, said Mr leigh.

“The numbers also confirm that Australians are looking to the government to drive changes that will give them more protection and more control.

 “That’s certainly a signal we need to recognise.”

Mr Leigh said the privacy reforms and the move toward national fundraising laws were designed to help the sector, not function as a handbrake.

“This foundational work on the key undertakings that protect public confidence to share their information and share their generosity is vital to our shared goal of boosting giving and supporting a stronger sector.

“The generosity of Australians who give their money to support a cause creates an obligation on government charities and fundraisers to ensure fundraising exchanges are safe and unambiguous.”

Mr Leigh said working together was the key to strengthening the confidence that Australians have in the nation’s charities.

“We can achieve the goal of doubling philanthropy by 2030 and we can shape a kinder, more inclusive and more connected society.”

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