Sector must stand up to bullies who would exploit Olive Cooke tragedy

Swns olive cook 10-web

Graham Martin argues that mistakes were made over Olive Cooke - but anti-charity elements have no right to exploit the case for sinister ends

Graham Martin's photo

13th October 2016 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

It was a private tragedy – but one that had very public repercussions.

The third sector in the UK – and fundraising in particular – is still trying to recover from the whirlwind which overtook it following the events of 6 May 2015.

Whatever motivated Olive Cooke that day (and an inquest was pretty clear her depression was the main driver – not contacts from charities), the outcome of her death in the Avon Gorge near her home in Bristol would have two distinct effects.

The first, of course, was on her family, who had to come to terms with the passing of a clearly very compassionate woman. The second was on the charity sector, which was almost immediately monstered as the villain of the piece.

Heartless charity fundraisers who hounded an old lady to death became the tabloid trope.

Fundraising is the sector's gatekeeper and getting it right removes a rather large weapon from the armoury of those with an anti-charity agenda

The tragedy came almost gift-wrapped for right wing papers which had been gearing up for an assault on the sector, spurred on by a Tory-led government which had long since dropped its “Big Society” pretence.

This was the era of the hapless Brooks Newmark and his call for charities to “stick to their knitting.” Knitting, incidentally, he could have done with when he was brought down by a tabloid sting involving grisly naked photos.

It started a chain of events which would transform the sector, particularly in England and Wales, but also in Scotland, which does not exist in splendid isolation.

That it was blatantly unfair both on the sector and on Mrs Cooke and her family is clear. But mud only sticks when there’s something to adhere to.

And if we’re being honest, there was. The case uncovered practices (data selling for example) which just should not have been happening, the targets and call centre culture of the chugger. Specifically, Mrs Cooke had been subjected to an unacceptable number of approaches from charities – something she had previously gone to her local paper about.

Fundraisers clearly feel embattled – when this issue was raised at a panel discussion at the recent Institute of Fundraising conference, there was applause when it was stated that charities were blameless in Mrs Cooke’s death.

They are right to feel aggrieved, to an extent. But fair or not, something had to change, and if the unintended consequences of this tragedy mean a tightening up, then that’s for the good.

Public confidence, like it or not, has taken a hit. And that can have consequences for beneficiaries. We can’t wish it away, so rather than moving on from the Olive Cooke case, the sector should take the opportunity to up its game.

Fundraising is crucial to the sector – in many ways it’s the gatekeeper and getting it right here removes a rather large weapon from the armoury of those with an anti-charity agenda.

Surely we must admit when things aren’t done properly – and also set face against the bullies in the right wing media and government who would exploit a private tragedy to silence their critics.

Let’s be honest about our mistakes – but let’s never stay silent.

Graham Martin is news editor of Third Force News.