Thoughts following the reaction to Olive Cooke. Part 1

By Azadi Sheridan.

I love fundraising and charities. Perhaps this is no surprise seeing as I’ve now worked either with, or for, charities for approaching twenty years.

In that time, I’ve not seen a sector controversy as great as the one surrounding the tragic death of Olive Cooke. A few months have passed, and I wanted to see what has changed.

For those who don’t know, Olive Cooke, Britain’s oldest poppy seller, tragically took her own life in May. An inquest into her death has not yet returned a verdict, and although the note she left didn’t mention charities, there has been a lot of speculation since her death about how charities approach their donors. She is featured in this very sad article from October 2014 in the Bristol Post about how in the space of a month, alongside many phone calls, she received up to 267 direct mail pieces from different charities, and was someone who “couldn’t say no.”  In the aftermath of this shocking news, the government proposed changes in the law to help protect vulnerable people from fundraising harassment.

A lot of column inches have been filled on this topic, but these are the key areas that have struck me.


This is sad stuff. It’s also complex, and we await a formal inquiry on further findings from Mrs Cooke’s tragedy. But the main reason behind the huge reaction is that these concerns have struck a nerve with members of the public who have received a similar customer experience from charities. And the effects don’t stop there, I’ve spoken to fundraisers who have seen huge dips in income subsequently, and therefore impact on services delivered to those in need. GoGen – a calling and face-to-face fundraising service provider – have filed for bankruptcy citing the current environment as a cause for this loss of 485 jobs.

Consent to Use of Data

One particular concern surrounding Mrs Cooke was the sharing of her personal data: “I believe some of the charities must have passed my details on, as I then started getting letters from other similar causes asking me to support them.”

I’ve personally built up a strong dislike for third party marketing. I saw one organisation, albeit not a charity, require customers who wanted information about a ticketed event to agree to receive party marketing. Famed fundraiser Giles Peagram’s piece on 101 Fundraising in late May in response to Olive Cooke’s death says “You [must] give donors a choice.” He doesn’t write about data sharing, but he does continue that point with the comment “If you ask them too often to give/upgrade, they will start to feel bad about the relationship, feel harassed, and possibly transfer their support to a charity that is less demanding.”

Unfortunately, once your data has been sold on (or swapped) it’s hard to control what happens next and stop being contacted. Have you ever been cold-called and asked where that company got your data from? I have, and the almost unanimous answer is “I don’t know.” I wonder if Mrs Cooke’s name appeared on a list for sale or rent by many charities. Surely, this causes exhaustion of the donor? I appreciate that the norm for third party marketing is to have donors opt-in, but why even go into data sharing like this? The third party advertising can be irrelevant, it can damage the charity brand and ultimately dilutes or competes with the charity’s message. Each pound earned swapping or selling data – in my eyes – is a pound spent reducing donor loyalty.

That being said, Codes of Fundraising Practice allow this kind of marketing, but what surprised me was Peter Lewis of the Institute of Fundraising (IoF) stating that some charities willfully work around the Code of Practice, even using call centres based abroad to work around the rules. Surely if we’re in the sector of doing good, donors expect us to abide by the spirit of the rules? How does working around the rules make a donor want to give?

Part II of this article will look further into how charities can reach donors ethically, and serve as a reminder for just how vital the profession of fundraising still is.

It will be published on Monday, 26th Oct.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>