Fundraising Standards Board to investigate death of poppy seller Olive Cooke, says chief executive Alistair McLean

Alistair McLean
Alistair McLean

The Fundraising Standards Board has launched an investigation into allegations that the poppy seller Olive Cooke, who died last week, was overwhelmed by fundraising requests.

The Institute of Fundraising has also announced that it will review its Code of Fundraising Practice and guidance in the light of Cooke’s death.

The announcement by the FRSB today comes after the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said on Saturday that he hoped the FRSB would look into whether anything could have been done to prevent Cooke’s death.

The body of 92-year-old Cooke was found at the bottom of the Avon Gorge near the Clifton Suspension Bridge earlier this month. Some national newspapers claimed she had been "hounded to death" after being inundated with requests to give to charities. An inquest will be held.

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, said today the regulator acknowledged that fundraising was thought to have been one of the factors that caused Cooke distress in recent months.

"The Fundraising Standards Board will investigate these allegations and has already made contact with Mrs Cooke’s representatives," he said in a statement. "We are also encouraging the public to speak to charities if they have any concerns or to get in touch with us so that we can address those issues."

He said the FRSB considered it a serious matter if a charity breached the IoF code and that it would work with other regulators, such as the Information Commissioner’s Office, if any breaches of data protection law were found.

The IoF said it would bring together representatives from across the charity sector – including from the FRSB and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association – to review what had been learnt from Cooke’s death, once the FRSB review had concluded.

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the IoF, said in a statement: "Fundraisers know that it is absolutely critical to maintain public trust and confidence in charities, and an important part of this is to fundraise in the right way and to the highest standards."

Separately, an undercover investigation conducted by the Daily Mail found that two data firms that sell donor call lists to charities, The Data Partnership and Communication Avenue, were cold-calling people who were signed up to the Telephone Preference Service.

In an article published today, the Mail reported that The Data Partnership, which has sold call lists to Marie Curie, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and St John Ambulance, was calling people registered with the TPS from offshore call centres and asking them to complete lifestyle surveys in order to secure data that could be sold to charities and other organisations.

The Mail reported that Communication Avenue admitted ignoring the TPS when doing phone surveys – a charge the firm denies – and that it bought data from other firms, including The Data Partnership.

Communication Avenue reportedly worked with charities including Macmillan Cancer Support, the NSPCC and the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.

The TPS website says that many companies telephone the UK from overseas in order to avoid the restrictions of UK legislation, but that companies making calls on behalf of UK-based companies are legally obliged to screen their call lists against the TPS.

Philip Lightfoot, chief executive of Communication Avenue, told Third Sector that the company contacted only those people who had given their consent to be contacted.

He said his firm had decided to stop working with The Data Partnership because of concerns about the way the company operated.

A spokeswoman for The Data Partnership said the firm did not use centres located overseas to avoid the TPS rules, but for commercial reasons. She said the firm did not contact people whose names were on the TPS list unless they had previously opted in to receive phone calls, which they could do by giving verbal or written consent to either The Data Partnership or another firm from which the company had purchased data. She said the comments on which the Mail story was based, made by a company employee, were inaccurate.

A spokeswoman for Marie Curie said: "We have clear contractual arrangements in place with our agencies that use data companies, but in light of these claims we are conducting a review – if we find that any breach of the code has taken place, we will take appropriate action."

An NSPCC spokesman issued a similar statement that said it would be reminding its agencies of their responsibilities to ensure that the charity’s standards were being met.

Colin Lloyd, chair of both the FRSB and the TPS, said firms that ignored the TPS were breaking the law. "There is a huge need for the fiduciary requirements of the data to be checked, and this is clearly not happening," he said.

He urged charities that buy call lists to screen the lists against the TPS themselves, rather than relying on data firms to do this.

It was also reported today that Jenny Phelps, a 65-year-old widow, had received more than 1,000 letters from charities in the past year.

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