Stephen Cook: Charities do have a case to answer on direct mail

Reports that the 92-year-old poppy seller was hounded to death by fundraisers were classic scaremongering, but everyone knows charities do send too much direct mail

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It’s an ominous sign that the first big charity story to hit the national media after the election of the Conservative government was the death of Olive Cooke, the 92-year-old woman who was found dead recently in the Avon Gorge near the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The way it was spun indicates that the anti-charity public narrative of recent years, far from fading, might be gathering pace.

The case was a classic piece of distortion and scaremongering. The Daily Mail front-paged the story about Cooke, who had sold poppies every year for the Royal British Legion and had been pictured last October in the local press with the piles of letters she had received from charities. The Mail played up the fact that she had felt pressured by this, played down the quotes from people saying this was not the main factor in the tragedy and described her as having been "hounded to death". The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian also ran the story, giving varied emphasis to the charity aspect.

The Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board both expressed their concern when the story broke, but once the Prime Minister had discovered that Cooke had received a Points of Light award from the government and issued a statement hoping the FRSB would look into the case, it had little alternative but to set up an inquiry. A week after the first stories broke, Cooke’s granddaughter gave a longer interview in which she said charity letters had not been a factor in her grandmother’s death and that she had been both ill and depressed. By this time the damage was done, however, and this interview did not get such wide play in the national media.

The temptation now for the fundraising world is to say "I told you so – it was all got up by the yellow press" and to go back to business as usual. This would be a mistake, because the distortions in the story about Cooke do not mean that there is no case for charities to answer. Everyone knows that they send too much direct mail, especially to older people, and that some people feel annoyed or even overwhelmed by it. Valerie Morton, a dedicated lifelong fundraiser and trainer, described in a column for Third Sector last week how she hears complaints about this everywhere she goes. It is not enough for fundraisers to say that income is holding up well, implying that this means everything is acceptable to the public. It is possible for income to be holding up at the cost of long-term damage to the general image and reputation of charity fundraising.

The FRSB has already indicated that two issues for the inquiry will be whether direct mail makes it easy or obvious enough for people to ask for it to stop, and the swapping of donor lists, which means that if you respond to a direct mail request it won’t just be the same charity coming back to you time and again. The frequency of mailings by individual charities might also come under scrutiny. The inquiry is likely to come up with recommendations for changes to the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice, and the IoF it will have to decide whether to act on them.

The case of Olive Cooke does not directly relate to the question of streamlining and simplifying the self-regulatory and complaints regime for fundraising, which involves the potentially confusing tripartite arrangements between the IoF, the FRSB and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association. But it lurks in the background. A consultancy report last year made recommendations for change, which is beginning to happen. When the fundraising bodies meet the newly reappointed charities minister Rob Wilson next week to discuss the case of Olive Cooke, perhaps he will – with the wind of the Conservative election victory in his sails – take the opportunity to inject more urgency into the process.

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