Olive Cooke investigation ‘likely to lead to tighter rules on direct mail and telephone fundraising’

21 May 2015 News

The Fundraising Standards Board will investigate how charities share lists of donors and whether opt-out clauses should be clearer, its chief executive Alistair McLean said yesterday.

Olive Cooke

The Fundraising Standards Board will investigate how charities share lists of donors and whether opt-out clauses should be clearer, its chief executive Alistair McLean said yesterday.

McLean indicated he expects the investigation, launched following the death of 92-year-old poppy seller Olive Cooke, to lead to tightening of the Institute of Fundraising codes.

He said he was “very concerned” about the view of fundraising he had received from members of the public.

“We’re taking this very seriously indeed,” he said. "We’re very concerned about the amount of feedback we’ve had."

McLean was speaking to the One Show, the BBC evening current affairs programme, following the death of Olive Cooke, a 92-year-old poppy seller who received more than 260 letters a month from charities.

Cooke’s apparent suicide sparked accusations on the front pages of national newspapers that she had been “hounded to death” by fundraisers.

Her family have denied this but said she found the volume of direct mail overwhelming, and called for tighter regulation of fundraising.

Prime Minister David Cameron personally intervened to call for the FRSB to launch an investigation.

Since the death, charities have faced widespread criticism in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, with a significant amount focusing on the accusations that fundraisers bully elderly people and share donors’ details through the selling of lists.

The One Show said it had had a “huge response” from viewers who felt that charities put too much pressure on the elderly.

McLean said that he personally “wouldn’t be too happy” if he received the volume of mail sent to some elderly people, and that he was concerned about the pressure on them.

“It’s completely inappropriate for people to feel pressured to give,” he said. “We want to make sure the public have confidence in the charities they have supported."

McLean said he felt that the writing on charities’ direct mail allowing donors to opt out was far too small, and that the FRSB would also investigate whether it was acceptable.

“It’s microscopic,” he said. “I would say it should be much bigger.”

He also promised to look into how lists of donors were shared among charities.

“The whole issue has raised a number of points about how charities share databases,” he said. “That’s a very serious matter."

He also said he expected the result of his investigation to lead to tightening of the Code of Fundraising Practice, which is set by the Institute of Fundraising Standards Committee.

"I expect the investigation we've launched will lead to changes in the codes,” McLean said.

Any changes to the codes are likely to take significant time, however. The FRSB investigation is likely to be dependent on the cooperation of Olive Cooke’s family, who have been in contact with the regulator but have so far not provided details of the mail she received.

And the IoF has said it will work on changes to the codes only at the conclusion of the FRSB investigation.

An inquest into Olive Cooke’s death took place yesterday but was adjourned to 16 July. The inquest heard that Cooke suffered from depression.

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