GDPR - It's what the public want: even for charities

Read about our GDPR research with the public: are charities giving enough consideration to how the public feel about the incoming changes from GDPR?
Jo Fischl

With General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on the not too distant horizon, there is an understandable level of nervousness in the charity sector. A number of reports have been released on the legal ramifications for charities, alongside conferences and events aiming to support charities to be GDPR ready. However, relatively little consideration has been given to how the public might feel about this incoming change to how their data is treated, both by charities and organisations more broadly.

In May this year, nfpSynergy conducted a set of focus groups, to investigate public emotions around the security of their data – in general and when it comes to charities in particular. We followed this up with some quantitative research through our quarterly public opinion tracking survey, the Charity Awareness Monitor.

The findings from both methodologies revealed significant unease amongst the public on the subject of data usage. We’re living in a world where people feel bombarded by advertising, and overwhelmed by endless terms and conditions which must be signed before we use many services. The focus groups revealed that in this landscape, there’s a feeling of powerlessness when it comes to keeping control over data and the way it is used.

“Every day, I get a hundred emails, of which maybe one is useful. I think this is an amalgamation of years of my data being passed on and passed on.”

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There is a tendency for people to feel that they are being taken for a ride by organisations who want personal data for their own ends, as one respondent put it “I feel everyone's getting rich off me apart from me”. Charities are certainly not immune to being the target of such perceptions. In every focus group someone had a story about feeling that their data had been passed on by charities. Whether these stories are recent or not, the experiences stick in the public mind and seem to be becoming an accepted part of the conversation on charities;

“I subscribed to one particular animal charity, and at Christmas time, the world and his wife came out of the woodwork [with] piles high of requests.”

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Unfortunately, these experiences can create a default position of suspicion when charities ask for personal data. When we asked our participants to imagine they had donated to their favourite charity and then were asked to fill out a consent form regarding on-going use of their data for a number of purposes, the responses from both the focus groups and quantitative survey demonstrated the vastness of the challenge of encouraging opt-in. In the quantitative research, whilst 47% said they’d opt in to hear from the charity about what they did with the money donated, only 16% opted in to be asked to donate to future appeals, and (less surprisingly) just 5% said they’d be willing to have their data shared with carefully chosen charities.

With some sector commentators questioning whether charities should be held to the same strict guidelines on data protection as businesses, we also wanted to put this question to our focus group participants. What we found was, whilst a few disliked the idea that extremely large fines could be levied towards charities for breaking data protection rules, in general the public think charities should be treated just as stringently as businesses if they break the rules on GDPR.

“I am fully in support of charities but there is a danger of complacency creeping in if you always treat charities differently.  They need to take care of people’s data.”

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So what does all this mean for charities in the run up to GDPR? First of all, there’s no getting away from the fact that GDPR is going to have a significant impact for charities. With donors reluctant to opt in to contact, we’re likely to see charities’ databases shrink and, as a consequence, incomes fall. But what should charities be keeping in mind, to give them the best chance of navigating these challenges?

  • Those donors who do choose to opt-in are very likely to be you most committed advocates. You have the opportunity to build better, more personal relationships with these donors – alongside considering ways to diversify income streams as methods reliant on personal data are diminished by opt-in.
  • Develop a culture of transparency with the public – many people currently approach their relationship with charities with suspicion and unease – if we are going to encourage the public to actively agree to communications from the charities they support, we need to be active ourselves in creating a cultural shift in this mindset.
  • Be creative in your opt-in ask – now is the time to stand out if you want your supporters to opt in. You are competing against a myriad of other charities (as well as businesses), so your creatives and messages need to shine to help you meet your retention goals.

Our report, GDPR – The Change That Charity Donors Want, was released to our clients last month – and we will be publishing it more broadly in September.

In the months ahead, speaking to your supporters and potential supporters will be vital to make sure you get those key messages right to encourage your committed and future supporters to opt in. nfpSynergy is already in conversation with some charities about creative and message testing research for GDPR communications. Please get in touch with us to find out more.  

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