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The Death of Olive Cooke

May 2015

When Olive Cooke, a 92-year-old poppy seller, was found dead at the bottom of Avon Gorge, front-page headlines screamed that she had been hounded to death by charity appeals.  David Cameron immediately leaped into the fray, calling for an investigation.  The Fundraising Standards Board promptly launched an investigation into the behaviour of the charities dealing with Mrs Cooke, and my professional body, the Institute of Fundraising, piped up with lengthy quotes about the Code of Practice that fundraisers must follow.

Then charities started beating their own breasts in public.  Let’s tighten up on phone calls, stop selling mailing lists, share data on older or vulnerable donors with each other, make it easier to opt out of appeals, and on and on.

Mrs Cooke’s family then absolved charities of any blame for their depressed relative’s death.  As soon as I read that, I wrote on Civil Society’s on-line discussion page:  Now that the family has cleared charities of responsibility for this poor woman’s suicide, I think several of the comments demanding further regulation of charities could safely and honourably be withdrawn.  Let’s not make raising vital funds even harder, especially in response to what has turned out to be a very flimsy straw man indeed, kicked instantly to death by our Prime Minister and a couple of newspapers that went berserk for ideological reasons.   

I was (not entirely to my surprise) rounded on by colleagues who said, in effect, that just because charities weren’t responsible for Mrs Cooke’s death, they COULD have been . . . thus we need to control ourselves or accept more regulation.

Let’s take a deep breath. 

Development professionals listen to donors.  In any new job, one of the first things I do is set up protocols to ensure that everyone dealing with donors and prospects reacts appropriately and uniformly to requests for changes in the way we contact them.  I have never bought, sold or exchanged names without the consent of those on the lists.  I know that my other colleagues behave in the same way.

We cannot presume that older donors want to be — or worse still, SHOULD be — deleted from solicitation lists simply on the grounds of their age and I have yet to work for a charity that found it financially fruitful to hound its supporters.

Purchased or exchanged mailing lists are vital to donor acquisition.  They make it possible for charities and non-profits to grow and for donors to find places where their money can follow their hearts. 

Telephone calls are often the only way to judge how donors are feeling about their relationship with a particular charity. 

And as I said in another online post during this debate: exactly how many data protection laws are charities supposed to break in order to compare notes on donors and prospects?

It sounds like charities in touch with Olive Cooke behaved according to our shared professional ethics and — more than was absolutely required by those ethics — with a sensitivity that I find admirable.

Why are we being so hard on ourselves? 

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