Charities warned on keeping donors’ details
Data Protection Commissioner tells organisations he will prosecute if information obtained via text message campaigns is used for other purposes
Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes. His office has issued formal warnings to two charities. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Charities have been warned they may face prosecution if they improperly use the contact details of people who have made donations to them using text message services.
The Data Protection Commissioner has issued formal warnings to two charities over the practice and has been “paying close attention” to the issue in recent months, the office said.
While the office would not confirm the charities involved, it is understood that World Vision Ireland and Barretstown, which provides recreation programmes for children with serious illness, are the two that have been formally warned about the practice. It has engaged with eight charities in total. The others with whom the office had contact amended their campaigns to comply with the law, it said.
The text message donation service is provided by a company called Like Charity, which is based in the UK but which also has offices in Ireland.
The company enters partnerships with charities and mobile phone companies and says its service enables 100 per cent of an individual’s donation sent using a dedicated number (50300) to be given to the charities.
Four charities contacted by The Irish Times said they had not paid Like Charity for the service.
A spokeswoman for the office of the Data Protection Commissioner said it was “perfectly legitimate” for charities to seek to collect donations by means of an SMS service.
But advertising which stated that by texting, an individual was consenting to be placed on a marketing database did not meet the requirements of the law.
If a charity added a donor to a promotional database without “specific opt-in consent” it would breach the Data Protection Acts. If it were to make follow-up marketing contact by text or phone to the donor concerned, it would commit a criminal offence.
During the course of the year, the office had corresponded “at length” with Like Charity and had had a meeting with the company “at which the requirements of the law were set out fully and unambiguously”.
Separately, it had corresponded with eight charities on the matter.
In some cases, the charities had taken the commissioner’s advice and proceeded with their campaigns on the basis of seeking an opt-in to their promotional databases.
“In two cases, charities decided not to take our advices. In those instances, we issued formal warnings to the charities concerned which notified them that they may face prosecution by the Data Protection Commissioner if they proceed to commit offences by communicating marketing messages or phone calls to donors who have not opted in to their marketing databases.
The charities , as well as the service provider used to create the promotional database using the SMS service, could face separate prosecution for the same offences.
The spokeswoman said donors should be able to make donations “privately and anonymously if they wished without having to worry about what might happen to their personal details when they press the ‘send’ button to transmit their donation”.
“We can assure the public that this office is closely monitoring developments on this front and we will not hesitate to take appropriate action against any charity or service provider that contravenes the law.”
World Vision Ireland said it “would be in regular contact with the Data Protection office when undertaking new campaigns”.
“Depending on their advice we act accordingly.”
Barretstown said it had engaged consultants to “help us gain clarity around this activity in the interests of the sector as a whole given the importance of this fundraising channel”.
“As of yet we have not managed to make much progress, however.”
Asked about its sources of revenue, John Kyne of Like Charity said the company’s model was to assist the charities with “marketing” activities. Asked whether the phone numbers of donors were passed back to the charities concerned, Mr Kyne said this was done “if they ask for them”.
Initially, the company had planned to charge a commission, but this would have triggered an “onerous regulatory levy” on donations of about 1.8 per cent.
The communications regulator Comreg was currently consulting on the levy and he hoped in future such levies would not apply to charity donations.
“Likecharity has not charged any commissions to date and we have committed not to charge any until at least 2015. After 2015 we will generate an income by being competitive compared to other payment methods such as debit/credit card.”
Anne Hannify, chief executive of Fundraising Ireland, an association representing professional fundraisers, said her organisation would meet the Data Protection Commissioner’s office in the coming weeks to discuss the issues involved.
Ms Hannify said that, at present, charities would only add someone’s details to their marketing database if they informed them in their advertising campaign that this would be done.
“Everybody wants to see a solution that’s fair to the donor but that also works for the charities as well,” she added.