What does the case of Olive Cooke tell us about charities?

Daily Mail: Shame of charities that prey on the kind-hearted
Daily Mail: Shame of charities that prey on the kind-hearted

Attention was focused on charity fundraising last week when direct marketing was said to have contributed to the apparent suicide of a 92-year-old woman. According to a friend, Olive Cooke of Bristol had been distressed by the volume of letters she had received from charities – something she had previously spoken to a local newspaper about. The exact circumstances of her death are of course a matter for a coroner to determine, not newspapers. But the issue of being inundated with fundraising letters seems to have hit a nerve.

What does it tell us about charities today?

Firstly – charities are doing more and more. Demand for their services is increasing, but this comes at the same time as donations are flatlining. They need money in order to keep working for their beneficiaries.

Secondly – there are signs that charities in general, and some more so than others, are increasingly reliant on what has been called a ‘civic core’ of people who donate disproportionately. This group is largely formed of older people. And even within this civic core, very few people get up in the morning with the spontaneous thought, ‘I’d like to donate to a charity’. Rather, they need to be prompted, whether by a friend, a volunteer fundraiser, or some direct contact from a charity. So charities need to ask.

Tragedy of the commons

These factors contribute to what Mark Phillips of fundraising consultants Bluefrog called the tragedy of the commons in fundraising. Applying the ecological concept, he saw a finite number of potential donors being approached more and more by charities until their good will, and their faith in those charities, is exhausted. His thinking followed the case of a couple who catalogued the 491 charity mailings they received in one year, including dozens of ‘gifts’ ranging from address labels to gemstones, torches and clocks.

Link to Fundraising Detective post about a couple who documented the 491 mailings they received in a year
One couple documented the 491 mailings they received in a year

As NCVO’s chief executive, Stuart Etherington, wrote in his letter to the voluntary sector in 2014:

Charities strike a balance every day between the activities that generate the resources their beneficiaries need, and the integrity that is equally crucial to their work. More and more attention will be focused on these judgements in the future.

That time is upon us. When the prime minister is moved to comment about fundraising practices, as he did last week, it is a clear prompt to look at what is going on.

Alienating donors?

Of course, most of us don’t hoard our junk mail for a year, or pile it up and photograph it, or talk to newspapers about it – let alone methodically audit it. People who do this are clearly not typical. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point, or that others don’t have similar concerns about this and other fundraising methods.

Take for example the practice of seeking an apparently one-off donation via text message, and then calling the donor to ask them to commit to a monthly direct debit. Of course, this is far more valuable to charities than a small one-off donation. But are the tactics employed alienating potential donors?

(Look, for example at the Mumsnet threads here and here.)

It’s been suggested this method won’t last much longer as the public become familiar with it and their willingness to donate by text drops as they anticipate an unwanted follow-up call.

Yet these often unpopular methods still work for many charities, at least in pure income terms – they are still bringing in vital donations and new supporters.

So is the model here that we keep innovating new methods, using them until they’ve aggrieved too many people and the public are ‘wise’ to them, then move on and start the process again with a new method?

We need to ask at what point does the reputational cost of the marginal pound raised exceed its monetary value – and should we only stop there, or well before there?

Fundraisers are caught in a tough place as the pressure put on them to fund charities’ work grows.

No easy answers

Of course, fundraisers know better than anyone that if the public don’t trust us, they won’t give. And there are no easy fixes here that could be applied without creating a risk of losing much-needed income. (It’s also worth saying that the cynical way that fundraisers are portrayed in the media does not tally with the thoughtful and committed fundraisers I know.)

There aren’t easy answers to this but the conversation is growing increasingly important for all charities. It’s something that should be at the forefront of the minds of people working in the sector, particularly the senior staff and trustees who set fundraisers’ targets and approve their methods.

Concerns about fundraising are part of a wider mix of concerns about charities, which some, such as Libby Purves in today’s Times draw a link between:

What must we think of this profession, which grandly dubs itself the Third Sector and pays hundreds of its executives more than the chancellor of the exchequer? How can we respect it when it won’t even question its own misbehaviour because it’s a ‘charidee’ and therefore axiomatically virtuous? Up on a moral high-horse, exploiting guilt and monetising pity, often spending lavishly on senior staff and flashy offices, addicted to sanctimonious political lobbying, Big Charity is becoming a monster.

We know the answers to many of these criticisms – but are we doing enough to explain them to the public, and if not, how should we go about doing so? These are the questions that the Understanding Charities Group, formed by NCVO and Charity Comms are looking at at the moment, and we’ll have more to say on it soon. (It’s also a topic we’ll be looking closely at in a session at NCVO’s Evolve conference next month, entitled ‘Charities have willingly misled the public about how they work’ – with contributions from NPC, the RSPB and Charity Comms.)

What do you think?

Further reading:

For Olive’s sake, charities must be less brutal – Lucy Siegle, The Observer

A curb on predatory charities is well overdue – Libby Purves, The Times (£)

Pushy charities should shove it – Dani Garavelli, The Scotsman

The death of Olive Cooke tells us fundraisers haven’t got the balance right – Valerie Morton, Third Sector

After the Olive Cooke tragedy, fundraisers must accept the need for stronger regulation –David Ainsworth, Civil Society 


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Aidan Warner is NCVO’s communications manager. He writes about charity communications. He has previously worked at the BBC, the General Medical Council and Mind, the mental health charity.

4 Responses to What does the case of Olive Cooke tell us about charities?

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