Effective data compliance and donor support services free up charities to do what they do best – providing much needed help to their beneficiaries. Failure in donor support service, on the other hand, can hinder a charity’s fundraising efforts and tie up staff.

The answer is an effective strategy that takes into account the issues around the use of personal data. A charity might have excellent donor support services in all other aspects of their work, but failure to properly manage personal data enquiries can un-do all of that.

Many charities invest significant resources in, documented privacy compliance practices that apply to their organisation. However, they are meaningless if they fail at first point of contact between staff and a consumer. Charities should aim to empower staff, even those who might receive queries about data, with a basic understanding of best practice. Employees who are aware of policy and the general provenance of the personal data held by their organisation, how it is collected and consumer rights, already have a head start. They are much likelier to provide quality donor support service and mitigate complaints.

Forward-facing staff should anticipate the commonly asked queries:

Where did you get my personal details?

If access to this information is readily available, this query can be answered fully and quickly. If time is required to establish third-party sourced consumer data, best practice is to provide a view on how long it will take. Under industry guidelines, consumer queries should be answered within a reasonable time frame.

Can you remove my details from your database immediately?

This is a straightforward request: confirmation that a consumer’s record has been suppressed is all that’s required. It may be necessary to clarify the difference between suppressing and deleting, explaining that if a record is deleted no record of the complaint will be held. By holding it on a ‘complainer’ suppression file, it will ensure that if it were acquired in future from another source it wouldn’t be used. By law, all Australian and New Zealand companies must maintain a record of individuals requesting to be removed from future marketing campaigns.

If a company’s suppression process doesn’t take immediate effect, it’s advisable to offer an estimate of how long it will take (i.e. when will the data cease to be used). This is particularly relevant with organisations who supply/share data with other charities for postal marketing. In some instances it may take up to 4-months for a persons name to clear entirely from an organisations database due to marketing campaigns already underway.

My mother has died, why is she still receiving marketing literature?

Many people simply throw unwanted marketing literature, whoever it is addressed to, in the bin. For others it is upsetting to receive letters addressed to a loved one who has died. As well as confirming suppression, informing people that they can register their relative’s death for free with The Australian Bereavement Register, can offer some assurance.

Have you illegally obtained medical details from my doctor/hospital?

Targeted marketing can give rise to instances of consumers becoming distressed, suspecting there is more to the marketing piece than simple coincidence. For example, a consumer has just been diagnosed with cancer and receives a mailing from a cancer research charity. It’s not uncommon in these cases for people to allege that a company has acquired illegal access to medical records. Sensitive handling of these cases is paramount, along with the ability to explain the privacy issues and strict laws protecting access to medical records. It should be reiterated that these are unfortunate coincidences. It often helps to explain identical fund raising appeal letters were sent to thousands of other people, some of whom may have found it helpful rather than insensitive/alarming.

Whatever the question, the key for anyone responsible for handling consumer data queries is to embed quality donor support service into your team, whatever the demands: do so and you will be rewarded. It’s easy to become exasperated by complainants, some of whom can appear vexatious. However, these sorts of people can be engaged and won over and it’s often not difficult to do. Handling queries transparently, efficiently and above all sensitively and you will usually ease concerns, save time and even leave consumers with a more positive impression of your organisation. For example, careful management of people wishing to stop elderly relatives with dementia receiving telemarketing calls or the person who receives an appeal mailing from a breast cancer research charity after a cancer diagnosis. These are all common complaints. But try also to be sensitive with those with seemingly more trivial concerns about the use of their data.

Transparency trumps opacity – for example some organisations are tempted not to have clear contacts on their website, figuring that some people might simply give up looking. However, if they persevere by the time they finally reach you, a once placid consumer has been needlessly transformed into Mrs Furious.

Conversely, the transparent company isn’t one that over-zealously provides the consumer (who simply asked; “Why have you got my details from?”) with far more than they asked for. Triage of complaints using capable staff is the key, and of course, smart disclosure may also be prudent. Answering the query adeptly is often sufficient, and might prevent a time-consuming access request.

Transparency should be the theme from the beginning to the end and this includes not leaving people in the dark – ensure they know how long you need to answer queries. It may be best practice to respond within 20 working days, but a consumer left this long might vent their frustration on social media, causing avoidable brand reputational damage. If you need time, have the ‘holder email’ on standby, keep in touch with your donor and remind them you care.