Olive Cooke report reveals minimal opt-outs and extensive data trading

The Fundraising Standards Board says its findings demonstrate the need for a Fundraising Preference Service

Newspaper coverage of the Olive Cooke
Newspaper coverage of the Olive Cooke

Only 14 of the 99 charities that asked Olive Cooke for donations provided her consistently with a tick-box opportunity to opt out of further communications, according to a report from the Fundraising Standards Board today. Sixteen failed to provide any opportunity to opt out, and 56 gave the charity's contact details but no tick box. 

The report says her case shows there needs to be an easier way for people to manage communications from charities, adding that it supports in principle the development of the Fundraising Preference Service, which will allow people to opt out at a stroke from all charity communications. The FPS is a key part  of the new Fundraising Regulator, which will replace the FRSB later in the year.

Today's report also calls for a "behavioural shift" in the way charities view their supporters. The pledge to be respectful and not put undue pressure on people is the part of the Fundraising Promise – signed by all FRSB members – that is most relevant to the Cooke case, it says.

Cooke, 92, committed suicide in May after suffering from depression. Several national newspapers initially blamed her death on the number of requests for donations she had received from different charities. Jessica Dunne, her granddaughter, said later that the death had nothing to do with charities.

Today's report says that the main reasons Cooke received such a large volume of fundraising letters were the number of charities she supported, the extent to which her details were passed on to other charities and commercial list agencies, and the fact that she was given insufficiently clear opportunities to opt out of future contact. Of the 99 charities, she donated to 88, 48 of them regularly.

The FRSB gathered evidence from 1,442 fundraising organisations for its report, calculating that she received a peak of at least 460 letters from charities in 2014.

But the amount of mail she actually received from charities might have been six times as much, it adds, referring to an interview she gave to the Bristol Post newspaper in October 2014 in which she said she received 267 charity letters in one month.

Seventy of the 99 charities that were contacting Cooke said they had received her details from a third party, either through a donor list purchased from another charity or a commercial list broker, or through an exchange of data with another charity.

The 70 charities had obtained her details from 22 separate data suppliers and 17 separate charities, the report says. Seventeen charities, 11 of which received regular donations from Cooke, said they did not know where they had sourced her details.

The report says that in virtually all cases in which Cooke’s details had been shared, the permission to pass on the data had been assumed, and charites had relied on the fact that she had not proactively opted out of data sharing.

The default position for most charities, it says, was that the onus was on Cooke to initiate opting out of data sharing, often without clear guidance on how to do so.

The FRSB report calls for a behavioural shift in the way that charities view their supporters. "The FRSB believes that the spirit of the Fundraising Promise – to which all FRSB members commit – should have a more central role in shaping the relationship between every charity and its donors," it says.

It says that of the six principles in the Fundraising Promise, the pledge to be respectful and to not put undue pressure on people to make gifts was the most relevant to the Cooke case.

"While the level of contact by each individual charity seems reasonable (averaging at under six mailings per year), some responsibility for the volume of communication must be taken by those charities which had, over the years, passed on Mrs Cooke’s contact details either to other charities or commercial list brokers without seeking her clear permission to do so," the report says.

Andrew Hind, chair of the FRSB, said: "Charities perform an essential role in British society and must continue to have the right to ask for funds. But, together with the poor practices exposed last summer, this investigation underlines the need for a charity’s right to ask for funds to be balanced with the public’s right to say no."

Hind said there needed to be an easier way for people to control how they are approached by charities and "greater organisational commitment to meeting donors’ needs".

He said: "We support the development of the Fundraising Preference Service, although it will be for the new Fundraising Regulator to identify an effective way in which this can be implemented."

Today's report repeated that in the three weeks after Olive Cooke's death the FRSB received 384 complaints, of which 70 per cent mentioned direct mail from charities, 42 per cent the frequency of contact, 35 per cent elderly or vulnerable people and 16 per cent consent and opt-out. The figures were first released in an interim report last year.

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