After Olive’s death: charities must listen to the public

Swns olive cooke 39-web

Alistair McLean of the Fundraising Standards Board says the tragedy of Olive Cooke's death provides charities with the opportunities to have a long, hard look at how they operate

TFN Guest's photo

21st May 2015 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Over the past week, the media has been dominated by the news that one of the nation’s much loved poppy sellers, Olive Cooke – a fundraiser and volunteer – was tragically found dead after feeling "overwhelmed" by fundraising requests.

Although Mrs Cooke’s family has since issued a statement confirming that charity fundraising did not lead to her death, her story has prompted many others to come forward – to the press, to charities and to the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) – echoing her concerns.

In their determination to rise above the competition, raising funds for their beneficiaries and services, the question I have been asked more than any other during the course of this week is whether charities are going too far?

The public receives marketing approaches from all sorts of organisations and charity fundraising is increasingly evident within that spectrum.

In a recent report from the Future Foundation on complaints about one-to-one marketing practices (mailings, doorstep and street approaches, telephone, email and SMS marketing), charities were found to be responsible for the majority of people’s experiences of street (73%) and doorstep approaches (51%) and almost one third of direct mail (31%). 

Alistair McLean

Alistair McLean

The recent outcry threatens the very basis of charitable giving and a confident and trusting public

What is good news is that the same report attributes a far lesser proportion of complaints to charities than their proportion of fundraising activity, but the point is that charities are doing an immense amount of marketing and they aren’t alone.

In our last complaints report, FRSB charities recorded more than 200 million addressed mailings and 242 million door drops a year, 210 million emails, 82 million collection bags and 14 million telephone calls asking for funds.

Post the recession, fundraisers have been working harder than ever to raise funds and the need for donations remains paramount. Charities have to ask to get donations and they usually make those asks pretty well; fundraising is innovative, emotive, professional and efficient. 

But, with so many organisations fundraising for a multitude of causes, there is greater responsibility to ensure that the sector is getting the balance right; that the public does not feel inundated, that people are offered easy and clear ways to opt out of unwanted contact, that data protection requirements are met and that they don’t feel pressured into giving.

For us at the FRSB, we have already initiated an investigation into reports that Mrs Cooke had been feeling overwhelmed by charity requests. How many requests did she get? Were they pressurising in tone? What could have been done differently? Why was her name on so many charities’ list of contacts? We will be seeking answers to these questions and to channel any learning into the Institute of Fundraising’s review of its own Code and guidance. We will also be following up concerns raised by others and that too will be fed into our key learnings.

For fundraisers, put yourselves in the shoes of your supporters and the wider public and be ever mindful of supporters who may be vulnerable or in  vulnerable circumstances. Ask yourselves some questions; could you make it easier for them to opt out of unwanted contact? How many times will any one person get an ask from you – mailings, phone calls or door knocks? Which other charities are likely to be contacting the same people at the same time? If you share donor data, are you making that clear?

The recent outcry threatens the very basis of charitable giving and a confident and trusting public. Charities must listen to what the public is saying and no fundraising organisation should move on without reviewing what can be learned from this today.

Alistair McLean is chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board – the self-regulatory body for charity fundraising in the UK.