Recently, eleven charities were fined a total of £138,000 by the Information Commissioners Office, after they were found to have misused donors’ personal data. And these were not small charities who did not know better, or were scrambling for funds or exposure. They are eleven of the best-known charities in the UK. Among those fined were Cancer Research UK, Oxfam, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

But what were they actually doing - and is it wrong? The charge against them is of breaching data protection rules, which sounds rather serious. It actually means several different things, and different charities weren’t all up to the exact same tricks. According to reports, for example, Cancer Research UK carried out screening of around 3.5 million of their supporters, and created a list of them ranking them in order of their believed wealth, as well as tracing around 700, 000 telephone numbers. Several charities have also been accused of tracing and targeting donors, both those who were still actively contributing to the charities, and those who had ceased to donate.

Perhaps worse is the fact multiple charities were allegedly piecing together information from different sources to which they had not been granted explicit access by the individuals, and even pooling together their data with other charities and selling or trading donors’ personal data. Some have even said that charities were using data to specifically target elderly donors, asking for donations and stretching to requests for bequests in donors’ wills. Whether these practices are right or wrong seems to be a point of contention for some, but as the ICO states - “Donors are oblivious to this practice. If you don’t know it’s happening, you can’t object”. The position is that everybody should have the right to control over who can access their data, and these practices seem to undermine that.

A lot of these illicit activities have reportedly been going on for a while, too. Oxfam is said to have been finding information about donors from outside sources for over a decade, while Cancer Research UK’s ranking system was in place for six years between 2010 and 2016. These two charities have been fined £6, 000 and £16, 000 respectively.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has finally been (taking action)[] against such activities, though. Last December, similar investigations resulted in large fines being incurred by the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation, and the full list of charities and their fines this time around can be seen here.

Yet the ICO says that charities have gotten off lightly. In fact, according to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (which admittedly does not come into full force until next May), the charities would be liable to be fined up to 4% of their turnover for these breaches. This could have amounted to around £400, 000. But the ICO says it has not fined so harshly, because this would only result in greater distress for donors and reduce charities’ abilities to carry out the good work they do.

Of course, breaking the law is never the right option, and charities should be extremely careful that their practices are not only legal, but ethical. However, there are those who strongly argue that what these charities have been doing is not so wrong. According to Beth Breeze’s report, which the Institute of Fundraising commissioned, researching donors is not only permissible, it is necessary. She writes that charities must be able to prepare before approaching potential donors or hosting meetings with them.

Her study is founded on a survey carried out on 247 fundraisers. The results have shown that research into donors is crucial for successful, professional fundraising. Three areas in particular were found to be positively impacted by preliminary research into donors: the donors themselves had better experiences, charities’ funds were spent more efficiently, meaning that the charities found that they were more able to fulfil their missions. According to Breeze, there really is not much wrong with using publicly available information, especially if it is simply to establish whether a person would be interested in donating to your cause. She quotes one fundraiser’s explanation for the efficacy of this approach: “If a charity decides to hold an event to inspire interest in its work, is it better to invite any 100 people to attend, or to try and find the 100 people with the warmest connection to the charity and the biggest capacity to give?”

People who take Breeze’s view would say that these activities allow not only for more personalised and relevant experiences for donors, but for charities to target their funds in a better way, and gain more donations, ultimately furthering the scope of their charitable causes.

It comes as another report entitled Donors Deciphered finds that a fifth of people report feeling ‘underwhelmed and under pressure’ by the level of contact that they are receiving from charities. Research into the likelihood that individuals want to donate to particular causes would supposedly bring this figure down, by making sure contact was only made where it was appropriate. Indeed, 61% of people have said that they would prefer to be better able to control which charities can get in touch with them.

At first glance it can seem difficult to reach any sort of conclusion on ambiguous matters like these. Everybody wants charities to be able to do as much of their good work as possible after all. But for many of the charities concerned, serious breeches of the law have occurred. Donors have rights when it comes to their personal information, and the relevant organisations need to be held to account when these rights aren’t respected. But where do we draw the line? Do we prioritise privacy, or charitable endeavours? And is there a way in which these can be balanced fairly to ensure that charities receive the funds they need, and people are not made to feel uncomfortable by constant contact from charities to whom they cannot or do not want to donate? We think charities need to make sure they carefully toe the line of the law, and treat their supporters and donors with respect and gratitude, not as sets of data to be bartered amongst themselves and hounded for money.