The tragic Olive Cooke case requires mature reflection, not knee-jerk responses

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

"Nan believed that charities are the backbone to our communities – that charities give us support, hope and courage when we need it the most."

Poignant words from Jessica Dunne, the grand-daughter of 92-year-old Olive Cooke, the charity volunteer and serial donor who nonetheless was starting to find charity appeals a bit "intrusive".

Charities had nothing to do with her suicide, her family insisted, but not before the national media had a field day reporting that they had hounded her to her death, and followed up with more sensational headlines about telemarketing and salaries.

Politicians jumped on the bandwagon. The Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, demanded "swift action" – with no evidence yet of any wrong-doing. There were knee-jerk proposals that charities be banned from sharing data and have limits on the number of letters they send (no mention of that applying to commercial marketing), which the Fundraising Standards Board endorsed; and wild assertions about charities' "gross exploitation" of vulnerable people.

Olive Cooke was not a vulnerable old lady, as her family was at pains to point out: "She was very on the ball with money and gave to charities because she wanted to and could afford to – it was a passion." Olive Cooke was an atypical supporter. She received a lot of charity letters because she supported a lot of charities.

It would be too easy to dismiss it as another unfair news story if it weren't for the fact that the volume of charity mailing Olive Cooke received struck a chord. It would also be too easy to jump on her family's gracious exoneration and get on with business as usual. There is a perception that some fundraising has become over the top and, like it or not, perception is reality. Charities certainly don't have special privileges, but we do have fundraising codes of conduct and there are already rules governing the collection and use of supporter data. We will have to see whether the Institute of Fundraising and the FRSB find that charities and their agencies have been scrupulous in this case, but the IoF will already be tightening its standards policy.

Yet charities should not hang their fundraisers out to dry. Fundraisers respond to the demands of their organisations. They have to balance raising the money with cost-effectiveness and trust. It is too easy for charities to respond in knee-jerk fashion, stopping fundraising that is under scrutiny but still effective. That can affect income, services and beneficiaries.

It is right and proper that trustees check that their fundraisers follow the codes and regulations. Fundraising ethics have to balance the interests of the supporter with those of the beneficiary. If the public were asked "should charities raise the most money they can to help more people?" I wonder what the answer would be.

I doubt that Olive Cooke would have wanted to be shamelessly used to whip the charities she was so committed to. If anything, I'd like to think she'd have preferred to be their supporter conscience. But what would she have thought? The truth is, we don't know. It would be a shame if charities themselves assumed the worst.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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