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Olive Cooke was overwhelmed by charities demanding cash

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​Report finds a deluge of cash requests by charities - in a system where donors' details were freely exchanged - led to Olive Cooke being inundated

Olive Cooke was “overwhelmed” by charities pestering her for cash, an official investigation has revealed.

The 92 year old British Legion volunteer, who committed suicide after living with depression for several years, had been targeted by dozens of charities for being a generous supporter of good causes, the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) final report concluded.

It found evidence that Cooke had been contacted directly by mail 466 times by charities in 2014 however the FRSB said the actual amount of mail she is likely to have received from all charities may have been as much as six times higher.

Although Cooke’s family later stated that charities had nothing to do with her death, the report recognises she had been distressed by the high number of approaches she was receiving, particularly in the post.

Some 24 of 99 charities who had Cooke’s contact details sold these onto other organisations and seven in 10 had obtained her contact details from a third party, such as a fellow charity or commercial list broker.

The investigation also found that Cooke’s details were held on donor lists maintained by 22 separate commercial data suppliers.

Insufficient opt out procedures were identified as being an issue, preventing Cooke from requesting her details were removed.

A catalogue of complaints

In the three weeks that followed the news of Mrs Cooke’s death (15 May to 5 June 2015), the FRSBreceived 384 complaints about charity fundraising. Of the complaints received:

70% related to direct mail activity

42% addressed the frequencyof charity communications

35% were specific tofundraising approaches made to the elderly or vulnerable people

16% were about how consent isgiven for charities’ use of contact data, with concerns that the current optingout measures for charity communications was unclear

Only 14 of the 99 charities that corresponded with her offered the specific opportunity to opt out of future mailings via a tick box in each communication. The large majority required donors to contact the charity proactively and ask to be removed from future mailings.

Andrew Hind, chair of the FRSB, said: “Mrs Cooke’s experience demonstrates the inevitable consequences of a fundraising regime where charities have been willing to exchange or sell the personal details of donors to each other, and to commercial third parties.

“But Mrs Cooke was not alone. Her experiences were echoed in the many complaints that the FRSB received following her death.”

An interim report by the FRSB published in June 2015 prompted substantial changes to the Institute of Fundraising’s professional standards for fundraisers (the Code of Fundraising Practice) later that year.

As a result of these changes, charities can no longer share contact data without donors’ permission and they must provide clear opportunities to opt out of further fundraising approaches in every written communication.

Hinds continued: “Charities perform an essential role in British society and must continue to have the right to ask for funds. But, together with the poor practices exposed last summer, this investigation underlines the need for a charity’s right to ask for funds to be balanced with the public’s right to say no.

“We welcome the significant strengthening of the Code of Fundraising Practice in response to our Interim Report.

“The FRSB believes that if charities fully comply with the newly strengthened fundraising standards and reposition donors at the heart of their fundraising activities, this will go a long way towards ensuring that donors in the future will not be placed under the same pressures as those confronting Mrs Cooke.

“Nevertheless, there needs to be an easier way for individuals to control how they are approached by charities and greater organisational commitment to meeting donors’ needs.

“We support the development of the Fundraising Preference Service, although it will be for the new Fundraising Regulator to identify an effective way in which this can be implemented.”