Senior third sector figures reflect on the Olive Cooke tragedy and the lessons learnt
The controversy surrounding the death of charity volunteer Olive Cooke unfairly bounced the sector into a new and uncertain regulatory landscape.
That was the explosive claim made by one senior charity figure – while it was also suggested it is time to move on from the tragedy.
The reaction that followed the aftermath of Cooke’s death saw the sector being “dictated” to by Westminster which in fact senior figures should have stood up against the onslaught, according to Ian MacQuillin, founder and director of fundraising thinktank Rogare.
Cooke was a 92 –year-old poppy seller who ended her own life in the Avon Gorge near Bristol on 6 May 2015.
In the immediate aftermath there was a tabloid backlash after it became clear that the OAP – a lifelong charity supporter and volunteer – had been bombarded by fundraising contacts.
We talk about the Olive Cooke tragedy, but I think one of the tragedies is that it continues to be associated with fundraising when that was completely false
The case – and others, including that of Samuel Rae, an 87-year-old who was scammed out of £35,000 after his data was sold on by charities over 200 times – had far reaching ramifications, which saw the abolition of the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB), the adoption of the opt-out Telephone Preference Service and the creation of the new Fundraising Regulator for England and Wales.
In Scotland the aftershock was also felt, and a new implementation committee was set up by the sector which will provide enhanced self-regulation.
However, subsequent inquiries – and her family’s own testimony – cleared the sector of substantial wrong-doing and found other factors in her death.
But not before a tsunami or negative publicity and institutional change washed over the charity landscape.
MacQuillin said this should never have been allowed to happen: “The point about the Olive Cooke and Samuel Rae cases is that these were outliers and we shouldn’t make public policy based on outliers. It’s supposed to be based on the majority of practices.
“But we’ve had the disbandment of the FRSB by fear of ministers at Westminster. It was more beholden leaders of the fundraising sector to have stepped in and this is not what we need – we have issues to address but we cannot allow ourselves to be dictated to by situations that didn’t happen.
“It’s become shorthand for what happened, but more than that it’s accepted into common wisdom as the cause of what happened.”
This was echoed by Adrian Salmon, a consultant in philanthropic management at GG+A Europe, who has also worked with Rogare in drawing up a new framework for ethical fundraising.
He said: “The contacts she received from charities and fundraisers were not even brought up in any of the evidence at the inquest which said quite categorically that her death was the result of chronic depression.
“The family subsequently said that the fundraising requests were not responsible for it. So we all talk about the Olive Cooke tragedy, it’s become shorthand, but I think one of the tragedies is that it continues to be associated with fundraising when that was completely false.”
Other figures on the panel were, however, more circumspect.
Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraisers, said: “Olive Cooke was an incredibly generous supporter and donor to 28 charities who she supported for many years – Amnesty for 17, Save The Children for 20 and that gets lost in the conversations we have.
“The reality is that the issues that were brought to light by the case was the tragedy of the commons – lots of charities were contacting her, they knew they were contacting her in exactly the right way for them.
“Big charities know exactly the number of times they were contacting her – two letters a year, five calls over 20 years, they know that data but what they didn’t know was that 28 other charities were also contacting her in a similar way, but also that her data had been shared and she was getting communications from 90-100 charities.
“That’s the issue that as a sector we’ve found difficult to answer. How can we deal with that? You as an individual charity know how you are engaging with a supporter but you don’t know the number of interactions they are having with other charities.”
Stephen Dunmore, chief executive of the new Fundraising Regulator, struck a note of contrition when discussing the case – and admitted it threw a light on substantial problems with fundraising in England and Wales.
He said: “I stopped referencing Olive Cooke a month ago, I decided that I would move on. Nonetheless, the case did reveal a whole set of issue around problems with fundraising, particularly in terms of sharing data.
“I wouldn’t want us to stray too much in the other direction of suggesting there isn’t much wrong at all. My impression in England is that there’s a good deal that is wrong and that Olive Cooke is not an isolated case, if you look at FRSB reports and that since July 233 complaints from the public about fundraising have been made to the regulator.
“For the most part fundraising is conducted in a professional way but there are times that doesn’t happen. It seems to me that there’s a substantial problem we need to put right.”
Dunmore stressed that, as far as he was aware, the situation in Scotland is not nearly so drastic, and this was backed by Val Surgeoner and Enable’s Mhairi Maguire, who are both involved in the implementation group for enhanced self-regulation north of the border.
Surgeoner said: “The implementation group has not focussed on Olive Cooke but has looked at the need for proper guidance from a data protection perspective. The lansdcape in Scotland is different from England and Wales and there has to be recognition of that.”
Maguire added: “Analysis of complaints showed that yes there are problems in Scotland but they are smaller scale rather than those around big media headlines about very, very poor practice in fundraising. The outcome for Scotland has to be something proportionate to what the landscape is here.”
Olive Cooke: timeline of a tragedy
6 May 2015 – 92-year-old’s body is found in the Avon Gorge, sparking a crisis of huge proportions for the third sector.
18 May 2015 – Then Prime Minister David Cameron asks the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) to investigate. The FRSB complies, and with the Institute of Fundraising (IoF), agrees to review the Code of Conduct in light of events.
27 May – FRSB reveals the scope of its inquiry and reaches out to Mrs Cooke’s family.
9 June 2015 – interim findings suggest a whole tranche of the code of conduct must be revised and must provide clear and easy ways for the public to opt out of communication with fundraisers.
11 June 2015 – IoF says it will strengthen the Code.
6 July 2015 - Save the Children says it will stop cold calling customers after it was one of the charities criticised in the wake of Olive Cooke’s death.
17 July 2015 – an inquest hears that Mrs Cooke took her own life after suffering from depression. Charities are not even mentioned.
22 July 2015 – despite tabloid headlines suggesting otherwise, charities played “no part” in Mrs Cooke’s death, says her granddaughter, Jessica Dunne.
29 July 2015 - agency R Fundraising goes to the wall with the loss of 100 jobs. It blames negative publicity following Mrs Cooke’s death.
23 September 2015 - a review, which comes to be called the “Etherington Review”, by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations finds that the FRSB is “not fit for purpose”. In Scotland, The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations sets up an informal review of self-regulation.
22 October 2015 in Light of the Etherington Review, RNLI says it will only fundraise from those who have given prior permission, a move that is expected to cost it over £35 million over five years.
17 November 2015 – it’s announced a new Fundraising Regulator for England and Wales will be created and the FRSB disbanded.
27 November 2015 – a leaked FRSB report shows that Mrs Cooke’s details were sold on 43 times.
20 January 2016 – the final FRSN report finds that Mrs Cooke had been inundated by charity contacts. It states that although her family stated that charities had nothing to do with her death, she had been distressed by the high number of approaches she was receiving.
28 April 2016 – Oxfam scraps doorstep fundraising as the crisis continues.
December 2016 – SCVO-led recommendations on enhanced self-regulation for Scotland due to be finalised.