Stephen Cook: The figures in the Olive Cooke case are verging on the shameful

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The figures about the charity mail sent to Olive Cooke before her death have been well trawled through in the news this week. Among the 1,442 charities canvassed by the Fundraising Standards Board – its members, plus 30 others known to have contacted her – 99 had her details, from which she would have received 460 letters a year, equivalent to eight or nine a week. But if her own account is used from an interview with the Bristol newspaper the Evening Post in 2014, indicating that many more charities were sending appeals to her than the 99 in the FRSB sample, that figure could have been six times higher.

What lay behind this onslaught – what other word can you use? – were two factors. The first was the minimal opportunities given in the mailings for her to opt out of further communications from the charity in question: of the 99 charities – not named, as is usual with the FRSB in all but its final adjudications – 16 failed to provide any opportunity to opt out, 56 required her to proactively contact them if she wished to opt out, and only 14 consistently provided an opt-out tick-box.

The second factor was the way her details were exchanged, bought or sold – and the more often she responded to requests, as she frequently did, the higher the commercial value of the lists she was on would no doubt have become. Seventy of the 99 charities in question obtained her details from a third party, which means, in practice, that her first communication from them would have been cold – in other words, not requested, and probably not desired, by her. Of those, 27 bought her details from a list broker and 43 obtained them from another charity, either by purchase or exchange. Twenty-four of the 99 said they had shared her details with other charities: all but three of the 24 said they had consent to do so, but in virtually all cases that consent was passively obtained – Mrs Cooke had failed to notice or tick a box, and had not ticked a box saying she was happy for it to happen.

These are sobering figures, verging on the shameful. All that might be said in the charities’ defence, as the FRSB report points out, is that, individually, they had no way of knowing the cumulative impact of their practices or how many other organisations might be approaching Mrs Cooke at any one time. But this would be a poor defence. The report says, rather mildly, that "one might question whether more consideration could have been given by charities to the potential consequences of sharing her details so extensively". One might go a bit further and suggest that they dismissed this vital question from their minds in the all-consuming desire to secure more donations by whatever means were effective – a consideration that in many cases seems to have trumped what most people would probably regard as the sensible thing, which is to keep your donors to yourself rather than flog them around to others and thus make it less likely they will give so much to you.

It was also obvious to anyone who gave any thought to it that the Olive Cooke scenario was being repeated all over the place, as the flood of complaints to the FRSB demonstrated after her case became public. It had been evidenced over the years through complaints, through articles in the press and anecdotally. The Institute of Fundraising did little more than turn a blind eye, which is why, quite rightly, the responsibility for setting the code of practice for fundraisers is being removed from it in the new self-regulatory regime being set up at the recommendation of the Etherington report.

To its credit, the IoF has now changed its code to ensure information about how donors can prevent further approaches is more clearly flagged up in all fundraising communications. Charities will also be banned from selling anyone’s data to a third party, and will be able to exchange data with a third party only if the person concerned has given express consent by opting in. It would be a good idea for this restriction to be tightened further by making any such consent valid for six months only.

The trouble is that this is too little, too late: while the stable door is being bolted, the horse is galloping down the street wreaking havoc with the reputation of charities generally and the goodwill of the donating public. The situation has been judged to be so serious that the new Fundraising Regulator is going to set up a Fundraising Preference Service – supported in principle by the FRSB report – to allow people to opt out of all charity communications at a stroke. This is potentially a huge threat to charities’ income, and everyone is now trying to find a formula for it that will mitigate the potential damage. As tends to happen, the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. The FPS, in effect, is the price the whole sector is paying for the unwillingness of the fundraising industry and the big fundraising charities to read the writing on the wall until the Olive Cooke case made it vividly unmissable.

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