The Fundraising Standards Board has criticised charities for sharing Olive Cooke’s details and for not giving her an easy way to opt out of communications, in its report published today.
Cooke, a 92-year-old who was Britain's longest-serving poppy seller, committed suicide last year. National newspapers claimed she had been "hounded to death" by fundraisers, and Prime Minister David Cameron personally called on the FRSB to investigate charities' connection to her death.
The FRSB found that out of 1,442 charities that participated in its investigation 99 had her in their database. Each sent her an average of six mailings per year, totalling 466 mailings in one year.
The FRSB believes that its sample is unlikely to represent the true amount of mailings she received, and that she was actually being sent around 2,800.
Some 24 charities had shared her contact details with others, but just 21 could confirm that they had permission to do so. Seventy charities had obtained her data from a third party, such as another charity or commercial list supplier.
In most cases permission was assumed and the charity expected her to contact them if she wanted to be removed from their database.
Just 14 of the 99 charities provided an opt-out box on every piece of communication, ten included it on the first piece of communication, two included a tick-box once a year, 56 provided contact information and 16 had no opt-out options at all.
The FRSB found that the number of charities contacting her had risen significantly since 2000. The total number of mailings from the charities in the FRSB’s sample more than trebled from 119 in the year 2000 to a peak of 466 in 2014.
“There was a long-term gradual growth in the number of charities contacting Mrs Cooke. This activity ramped up after 2000, with an increase in the use of list brokers and charity lists,” the report said.
Before 2000 she was being mailed by 19 of the charities in the sample. Since then 82 new charities contacted her for the first time, five of them in the last five years.
The FRSB report called for a culture change in the way that fundraising is carried out.
It said: “There needs to be a behavioural shift across the voluntary sector in the way that charities view their supporters.”
Andrew Hind, chair of the FRSB, said in his introduction to the report: “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."
He added that: “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."
He said that the changes to the Code of Fundraising practice that were introduced after June’s interim report “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," he said. "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.”
Olive Cooke's family was also critical of charity fundraising practice. Although family members have previously said fundraisers are not to blame for her death, a statement contained in the report backed the introduction of the Fundraising Preference Service.
The statement said: “We are very grateful that there has been an investigation into charity fundraising practice overseen by the Fundraising Standards Board and are pleased that there have been changes to the Code of Practice as to how charities fundraise, as well as changes to the law to prevent elderly and vulnerable people feeling pressured to give when they can’t.”
Chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, Peter Lewis, said: "We are glad that the FRSB has recognised that the changes agreed to the Code of Fundraising Practice will improve fundraising standards to help to avoid people feeling overwhelmed with approaches from charities in future. Fundraising is essential to the good work that charities carry out across the country. We will work to support charities and individual fundraisers to rebuild trust of the public and long-term support from donors."
Suzanne McCarthy, independent chair of the IoF’s Standards Committee said: "The report highlights several of the important changes that the Standards Committee made over the summer to the Code of Fundraising Practice following the FRSB’s interim report. These will help to ensure that people have more control over the contact they have with charities. The Code bans the selling of supporters’ information. The Committee will continue to look at ways to improve the Code. "
Rachel Aldighieri, managing director of the Direct Marketing Association, said: "This report shows that charities routinely failed to consider their donors. The charitable sector is in a curious position because it has often been at arm’s length to the rest of the economy. The events of the summer mean that this can no longer be the case. Fundraising is to charities what marketing is to business and trust in fundraising needs to be rebuilt.
"The only way of doing this is by charities putting their customers – the donors – at the heart of everything they do, which is the key principle of the DMA Code," she said.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO who led a review into fundraising practices in the wake of the Olive Cooke scandal, today wrote to chief executives at NCVO member charities to tell them the behaviour identified in the report “falls short” of the standards expected.
“I was particularly struck by the finding that such a small proportion of charities who contacted Mrs Cooke gave her a simple method to opt out of future contact. And of those who shared her data, most did so simply with an assumption that they could do so, rather than with her explicit consent. This clearly falls short of the standard that we would expect of any organisation in treating our personal data, let alone charities,” he said.
NCVO has set up a working group to consider how the FPS could work.
“We will continue to be scrutinised in this area and it is crucial for the sector’s reputation that we are not found wanting,” Etherington added.