Fundraising: people in vulnerable circumstances

Information for charities conducting fundraising activities

How a charity conducts its fundraising is an important part of a successful strategy and is crucial to its reputation. A charity’s fundraising practices should be consistent with the values of the organisation, and should always treat donors and potential donors fairly and respectfully.

It is particularly important that any fundraising, whether conducted directly by a charity itself or through a fundraising agency on a charity’s behalf, has adequate processes and checks in place to protect people in vulnerable circumstances.

The purpose of this guidance is to assist charities to act responsibly when their fundraising activities engage people in vulnerable circumstances.

Oversight of fundraising is a core governance responsibility and all members of a charity’s board or management committee (referred to by the ACNC as ‘responsible persons’) should carefully consider how their charity interacts with people in vulnerable circumstances while conducting fundraising activities.

Although the ACNC does not regulate fundraising, its regulation of charity governance and its responsibility for promoting trust and confidence in Australia’s charities means the way in which charities conduct fundraising is an area of interest and concern. For information about the specific regulations for different types of fundraising activities, contact the relevant state or territory regulatory body. For a list, see acnc.gov.au/regulatorlist.

People in vulnerable circumstances

Not all people are in a position to make a confident, informed choice about donating to charity. Some people may not have the capacity to make such decisions, some may be in a vulnerable position, and others may require extra support or care. Charities that conduct fundraising – be it in person, over the phone or online, through fundraising agencies or directly – should be aware of people’s vulnerabilities and take steps to ensure that their fundraising practices do not target or exploit people in such circumstances.

A person may be considered vulnerable if their circumstances mean that their capacity to make a decision is reduced. Vulnerability can be permanent or temporary and can vary greatly from person to person.

Common examples of people in vulnerable circumstances can include people:

  • with intellectual disabilities that affect comprehension or understanding
  • with physical or mental health issues (permanent or temporary)
  • who don’t fully understand the language the fundraiser is speaking
  • experiencing financial difficulty
  • experiencing stress or anxiety (including that induced by a request for a donation)
  • under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • who are unable to care for themselves (especially those who rely on the support or care of a charity), and
  • who are elderly (especially those without close support) and very young.

The extent to which a person’s capacity to make a decision about donating is reduced will depend on their particular circumstances. Some people in vulnerable circumstances may still be capable of making an informed decision if they have extra care and support.

Having the capacity to make a decision to donate to charity means that a person is able to, either alone or with support, fully understand the information presented to them, carefully consider the information and the consequences of their decision, and communicate their decision clearly.

How do you identify people in vulnerable circumstances?

Understandably, it can be difficult to detect vulnerability when asking people to donate to charity, particularly when the interaction is not face to face.

Individual capacity to make a decision depends on a range of factors and some are more obvious than others. However, charity fundraisers should be aware of some of the common signs of vulnerability, and act with considerable care when interacting with people who may be in vulnerable circumstances.

Common signs that a person may be in a vulnerable circumstance can include:

  • a lack of comprehension of what is being said
  • continually asking for statements or questions to be repeated
  • making statements that indicate others look after their affairs (for example, “my son/daughter normally looks after these matters for me”)
  • responses that indicate the person does not fully understand the language being spoken
  • any expressions of being uncomfortable, stressed or anxious
  • irrational, confusing or erratic responses to simple statements or questions
  • excuses to not talk or interact
  • a reliance on the immediate care or support of a charity, and
  • eagerness to donate (sometimes large sums of money) without sufficient knowledge of the cause or without asking the types of questions a regular donor would in the same situation.

Charities should be aware of the signs of vulnerability and not seek donations from people who appear to not have the capacity to make informed decisions about donating.

How should charity fundraisers interact with people in vulnerable circumstances?

Not all fundraising activities are the same, and different forms of fundraising may be subject to different laws in different jurisdictions. For example, telephone fundraising, email campaigns and face-to-face street collecting are all subject to different regulations.

How charity fundraisers should respond to the needs of people in vulnerable circumstances will depend on the nature of the activity and the interaction. However, there are some steps that charity fundraisers should take to ensure they are treating people in vulnerable circumstances fairly regardless of the type of fundraising activity:

  • Speak clearly, slowly and use terms that the person can understand
  • Make it clear who the fundraiser is and for which charity they are collecting
  • Repeat important pieces of information – particularly the consequences of a decision to donate
  • As the interaction progresses, check that the person understands and is happy to continue
  • Do not put pressure on the person to make a donation – politely accept any refusals to donate without reservation
  • Ask the person if they need to consult someone else about the decision
  • If seeking substantial gifts or bequests, provide an opportunity for the donor to seek advice, and
  • Provide the person with relevant information and options for donating later so they can consider their decision in their own time.

If a charity fundraiser reasonably thinks that a potential donor may be in vulnerable circumstances and not able to make a confident and informed decision to donate at the time of the interaction, it is important that they do not accept the donation. In situations such as this, a charity fundraiser should allow the person some time to think about the donation and provide a way for them to contact the charity later with a decision.

If a charity learns that a donation has been made by a vulnerable person without informed consent, the charity may wish to consider providing a refund for the donation. This will depend on the particular circumstances of the donation.

What steps should charities take to ensure they are treating people in vulnerable circumstances fairly?

It is important for charities to consider people in vulnerable circumstances when they plan and conduct any fundraising activities. Acting without sufficient regard for the circumstances of individuals can result in a loss of support and funds, and can cause irreparable damage to the charity’s reputation.

Beyond this, though, it is highly unethical to target or exploit people in vulnerable circumstances to secure funding.

The board or committee members (the responsible persons) of charities should ensure that:

  • their fundraising strategies consider the needs of people in vulnerable circumstances and contain measures to minimise risks of them being targeted or exploited
  • charity fundraisers recognise the indicators of vulnerable circumstance and know how to act appropriately when they encounter a person in such circumstances
  • any contracts with third-party fundraisers, such as fundraising agencies, have measures in place to protect people who may be in vulnerable circumstances, and
  • the charity has processes and checks in place to protect the interests of people in vulnerable circumstances.

Fundraising is vitally important for charities, but the ends do not necessarily justify the means. Successful fundraising should not be measured solely on the amount of money raised. How a charity conducts its fundraising and interacts with the community, particularly with people in vulnerable circumstances, is an important element that needs to be considered carefully.

Other ACNC resources

External resources

Contact us

13 ACNC (13 22 62)
advice@acnc.gov.au
GPO Box 5108
Melbourne VIC 3001

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