Valerie Morton: The death of Olive Cooke tells us that fundraisers haven't got the balance right

Friends and family of the 92-year-old found dead in Bristol say she had been unwell, but had also felt under pressure from charities. That should give us pause for thought, says our columnist, who is a lifelong fundraiser

Valerie Morton

My heart goes out to the family of Olive Cooke, whose body was discovered in the Avon Gorge near the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol last week. It is such a tragedy, and desperately sad, for someone who has given so much to society apparently to have ended her life in this way.

It would be inappropriate at this stage to make assumptions about what happened, but the fact that the family and close friends of Olive feel that the fundraising pressures from charities might have been a factor should be enough for us to take a step back and reflect.

When my own mother (a lifelong charity supporter and, like Olive, a poppy seller since the Second World War) was living alone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she chose to respond to a large number of charity direct mailings by sending in cheques for the then standard amount of £15. I found out about the donations when I was helping her with her finances and could tell that she was moved to support each and every one of them, despite living on little more than her state pension. What was interesting was that her usual decision-making processes and level of prudence were suffering as a result of her Alzheimer’s to such an extent that she was donating far more than she could afford – and to charities that she had always in the past said should not take priority. This all happened at a time when telephone fundraising was not as extensive as it is now. I don’t like to think what would have happened if she was alive today.

So you could be thinking that I am about to propose tighter regulation of fundraising from vulnerable people. But I am not. I am not sure how we can ever really identify who is vulnerable. I am actually concerned about a bigger issue – that charities are ignoring what many people feel is bad practice by using that classic rationale of "we know some people don’t like it, but it raises lots of money". Direct marketing is not bad in itself, if done well. Telephone fundraising is not bad in itself, if it is done well. Face-to-face fundraising is not bad in itself, if done well.

But the truth is that we are ignoring the groundswell of opinion that we are not doing it well – kidding ourselves that it is only a minority of the public who are unhappy or the occasional pushy telephone fundraiser who does not follow instructions, when the reality is  that there is a great deal of bad fundraising around and it is upsetting many people. If we were doing our fundraising better, the issue of specific protection of vulnerable people would be irrelevant.

As a loyal fundraiser, I listen to all the arguments about the right to ask (which I agree with in principle), but then I go home and I hear person after person on the train, at the gym, at parties and in the supermarket talking to their friends about bad experiences with charities. What brought it all to a head for me, even before the tragedy of Olive, was being at a meeting with charity clients where two young fundraisers both, unprompted, talked about how they had themselves stopped donating to certain charities that had phoned them so many times after they had made a small text donation. Clearly the message "I don’t want to give any more money" was being interpreted by the charity representative as "I don’t want to give at this precise time".

Now, if someone who is a fundraiser does not know that they should simply say "please remove me from your lists", how can an ordinary member of the public be expected to know the correct words to use? This same pair recounted tales of being contacted by telephone fundraisers who would not get off the phone and would not take no for an answer. They said that it gave their profession a bad name. It's difficult to say you are proud to be a fundraiser when you go through such experiences.

When I have heard stories like this in the past I have always defended our sector. I have suggested that it must have been a rogue fundraiser; that we have codes of practice that should be followed (and I wrote some of them!); that if only the individual had told the charity they did not want any more mail, it would have stopped. I did the the same in my early days of being a non-executive in the NHS – I was (am) so passionate about the NHS that I would hear examples of things going wrong and find myself justifying why it happened. It was a one-off, I would say; there was probably an emergency that had to take priority; that of course operations get cancelled if staff go down with flu. But it was that kind of attitude that led to the horrendous examples of atrociously poor care at what used to be called the Stafford Hospital.

So we make excuses. We trust our staff and cannot imagine they would do anything wrong. When something bad happens, we justify it by saying it is an exception. I know there are times when charities are following best practice and things go wrong because a donor accidentally mis-spells their own name or ticks a box in error or just doesn’t like to say no; but that kind of thing cannot account for all the examples I hear about.

I don’t want to work in a profession where I am having to make excuses all the time. I don’t want to feel embarrassed about how charities are interacting with their donors. But most of all, I don’t want to work in a sector that cannot raise enough money to support its beneficiaries because they have alienated the very people with the potential to give.

There are so many examples of fantastic fundraising. Great win-win corporate partnerships. Major donors making a significant difference to local and world causes. Membership schemes that enable people to support causes they feel passionate about. Challenge events that inspire individuals and raise money at the same time. There is a whole new generation that doesn’t see fundraising as something middle-aged people do over coffee.

But the balance is simply not right. I wish I had the perfect solution. Perhaps it would help if directors of fundraising did more mystery shopping or ensured that a higher percentage of calls were recorded and analysed. Perhaps we should have the guts to make it easier for people to ask to be taken off lists or not to be called again. Perhaps we should look seriously at how payment by results can influence behaviour (positively, of course, as well as negatively).  Perhaps we need to educate our trustees to think longer term. Perhaps we need to be more creative about how we reach the people who are happy to support us. Or perhaps we should have donor satisfaction league tables in the way they do for customers of companies. But most of all, perhaps we simply need to think: "If it was my mother, sister, grandmother, daughter being treated in that way, would I be happy?"

Valerie Morton, a fellow of the Institute of Fundraising, has been a fundraiser for nearly 38 years for charities including Help the Aged, YMCA, NSPCC, and the RNIB.

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