The voluntary sector’s reputation fell sharply when the news of Olive Cooke’s death broke and it is still falling, according to Peter Kellner, president of the polling company YouGov.
Kellner told delegates at the charity chief executives body Acevo’s annual conference in London this morning that the conclusion was based on YouGov’s Buzz Score index, which asks people about their attitudes and opinions about charities.
Cooke, a 92-year-old poppy seller, committed suicide in May after suffering from depression and other health problems. Several national newspapers linked her death to aggressive fundraising tactics by charities, a claim that was refuted by her family.
It led to a series of negative newspaper stories over the summer that highlighted bad practice among some charities and fundraising agencies, culminating in Sir Stuart Etherington being asked to carry out a review of the self-regulation of fundraising, which recommended significant changes to the system.
Kellner told the conference today that the net buzz score for charities, in which positive opinions are combined with negative ones, had "dropped very sharply this year".
He said: "And it will come as no surprise to you that it dropped most sharply of all following the stories surrounding the death of Olive Cooke.
"But most worryingly of all, after it dropped it did not recover – and since then it has continued to drift downwards a lot more slowly, but it has not gone up."
Although Kellner did not give exact figures, Third Sector reported in August that the buzz scores declined from 75.8 on 1 May to 60.4 by the end of July, from where the downward drift has continued.
Kellner said that this contrasted with earlier falls in the buzz score for charities caused by issues such as executive pay, because they had tended to be followed by a recovery.
He said: "So the conclusion I’ve drawn about public attitudes is that you do have a problem.
"It has probably been awkward but not catastrophic in terms of fundraising in the short run. But, and here I’m extrapolating beyond the pure data and looking at the way reputations evolve in other areas, the thing I’d say to you is that you can’t afford another one of these kinds of stories."
He warned that if another such story should break, the effect would be worse and longer lasting than it would have been if the Olive Cooke story had not happened.
"These things do tend to accumulate," he said."People can be tolerant of one error, and much less tolerant of a second or third.
"The picture is not bleak. There is scope for recovery. It can be retrieved, but it needs work – and you can’t allow another Olive Cooke-type story."