Charities must be proactive in dealing with the issues raised following the death of the poppy seller Olive Cooke instead of just waiting for the fundraising self-regulatory bodies to take action, the director of fundraising at Oxfam has said.
Speaking to Third Sector, Tim Hunter, who joined Oxfam from Unicef in May 2014, said he had met counterparts at two similar charities to decide what action should be taken in the wake of Cooke’s death. He said his charity had received "less than 10" complaints since the case was highlighted in the national media.
Cooke was found dead in Bristol’s Avon Gorge earlier this month, having reportedly been deluged by fundraising requests in the months before she died. The Fundraising Standards Board is carrying out an investigation into the circumstances and the Institute of Fundraising has said it would review what was learned from the case and consider revising its Code of Fundraising Practice.
Hunter said he viewed the situation as a test of self-regulation and that charities should be pressing the IoF to make sure it was fulfilling its leadership role. He said the FRSB and IoF needed to engage with each other in handling the case, rather than one of the bodies making all the decisions.
Cooke’s family have said that charities were not to blame for her death, but Hunter said the sector could not ignore the public reaction to the case because it suggested there was underlying discontent about fundraising methods. "The sector needs to take a long hard look at itself," he said. "I wouldn’t want to be in the camp that is saying we can all go back to business as usual."
He said that too many people currently felt they were victims of "bad fundraising machines".
The Cooke case also raised questions about the small size of opt-out notices commonly used in charities' direct-mail communications. Hunter said lots of people ticked the "opt out" box on communications sent by Oxfam, suggesting that most people were aware of how the system of consent worked. He said that European Union proposals to reform data protection rules – requiring people to give their consent before an organisation could contact them for marketing purposes – could reduce this problem across the sector.
But he said it was not realistic to try to legislate to restrict the amount of direct mail charities sent to prospective donors, either through quotas for charities or individual donors. "If we had put a rule such as that in place and hit our quota before the Nepal earthquake had struck, it would have meant that our supporters would not have been given the opportunity to support our work there," he said.
On the sharing of donor lists with other charities, Hunter said Oxfam no longer exchanged lists of supporters with other similar charities, but that the charity was experimenting with sending out very little cold direct mail.
But Tracey Pritchard, head of fundraising and supporter development at Friends of the Earth, told Third Sector that generating donor leads through acquiring lists of people who were sympathetic to the charity’s cause, such as those who had signed environmental petitions, had proved one of the charity’s most effective donor acquisition methods.
The Conservative MP Nigel Evans earlier this week called for a ban on charities sharing donor lists but Pritchard said she disagreed with such a measure. "An outright ban would be wrong," she said. "If there’s evidence that people would want to hear what we have to say, there’s a justification for contacting them."
She said Friends of the Earth would not buy lists of "completely cold" supporters. She added that she had no reason to think that the IoF code needed to be tightened up. Friends of the Earth had received no complaints directly relating to Cooke’s death, she said.