The Olive Cooke case poses questions for fundraisers

Reports attributing the poppy seller's death to an excess of charity requests were denied by her family, but political interest has led to an inquiry. Susannah Birkwood reports

Olive Cooke
Olive Cooke

On 6 May, Olive Cooke, one of the Royal British Legion's longest-serving poppy sellers, was found dead in the Avon Gorge in Bristol near the Clifton Suspension Bridge. An inquest was later told that she had suffered from depression, and her family attributed the death to this, a lack of sleep and health problems related to her age.

But in the days after her death several national newspapers had reported that the 92-year-old had received an overwhelming number of mail and telephone requests from charities. She had given an interview to the Bristol Post newspaper last year about the high volume of direct mail she received from charities, saying that in one month she received 267 such letters.

'Overwhelmed'

The suggestion that Cooke might have been "hounded to death" by charities – as the Daily Mail claimed – attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who issued a statement urging the Fundraising Standards Board to look into whether Cooke's death could have been avoided. Two days later, the FRSB launched an investigation into the allegation that Cooke was deluged by communications from fundraisers.

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, says its investigation will involve meeting the family to find out what charities Cooke was supporting before she died, as well as processing the many complaints it has received since then from people concerned about excessive contact from charities.

McLean says he expects the investigation to lead to a tightening of the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice. And on the BBC's The One Show on 20 May, he highlighted two issues with current practice: the "microscopic" opt-out notices commonly used in charities' direct-mail communications and the way donor lists are shared among organisations.

Colin Lloyd, chair of the FRSB, says the Prime Minister's intervention was unusual and could result in the FRSB's powers being extended. Its authority is currently limited to regulating only those charities that voluntarily sign up to be members and to penalising only activity that breaches the IoF code.

Once the FRSB review has concluded, the IoF says, it plans to bring together representatives from across the charity sector – including from the FRSB and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, the self-regulatory body for face-to-face fundraisers – to review what was learned from Cooke's death.

"We need to wait for the FRSB to do its investigation and shouldn't hypothesise about what might or might not have happened," says Peter Lewis, chief executive of the IoF. He says that once the investigation is complete, the IoF Standards Committee, which sets the code, will decide whether it or the accompanying guidance need to be revised.

Tackling the issues raised

Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, asked Lewis, McLean and Peter Hills-Jones, chief executive of the PFRA - to meet him in the last week of May. A Cabinet Office statement said he wanted them to explain the steps they were taking to tackle issues raised by this tragic case, such as unwanted fundraising calls and the sharing of information.

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