Section: Data Protection
Do we need permission from alumni and others before we start fundraising?
You don't necessarily need permission. It all depends on what you have been telling your alumni when you have been collecting their data.
If you have said that you may use their data for fundraising purposes, then anyone who has received something from you with that information in can reasonably be said to have been given the "Fair Processing Information" about what you intend to do with their data.
If you have never explicitly told people that you might fundraise from them, then you need to consider what they are expecting. If it's their expectation that you will be, because you have been talking about this in the magazine, correspondence, etc, then you can again reasonably assume that they will understand their data may be used for this purpose.
On the other hand, if they genuinely have no expectation whatsoever that you might be using their data for fundraising purposes, then you have more of an issue on your hands, and need to consider how you will tell them that you are going to do so. Sending a pre-call letter seems a good start to me, and if they have really never thought that you might fundraise from them, then the opt-out option needs to be an easy one.
Do remember though, that you do not need people's permission to process their data. So long as it is in your legitimate interest, and you have supplied them with the Fair Processing Information, and you have not obtained the information unfairly (ie collected it telling them you would do one thing with it, and then using it for a different purpose) then you may process their data.
In all cases you should check that your institution has the correct notification with the Information Commission, and that this notification includes use of data for fundraising purposes. Details on how to check Notification are at this link.
More information at my Data Protection Pages, particularly my 10 Frequently Asked Questions.
Finally, remember this is not formal legal advice, just my understanding of the Data Protection Act 1998. You should consult the Information Commmission or a lawyer or other qualified person if you wish to be given formal guidance on this matter.