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The sickening spectacle surrounding the death of Olive Cooke

The sickening spectacle surrounding the death of Olive Cooke

The first I heard about the tragic death of Olive Cooke was when my phone rang at 7.15 on the morning of Friday 15 May. It was BBC Radio London asking if I’d come on talk about a woman in Bristol who had died after being hounded by charities. I’d been out the night before and hadn’t checked the news when I got in, so knew nothing about Mrs Cooke’s death, nor the circumstances surrounding it. But my first thought was: that doesn’t sound likely.

And as we now know, it wasn’t. Mrs Cooke, who suffered from depression and had recently been robbed of £250, didn’t commit suicide because she was “hounded” and “bullied” by charities, as a statement released by her family and made at the opening of the Coroner’s inquest makes clear.

But that didn’t stop the media going to town on the issue, opening the floodgates for another round of blatant assaults on charities.

This is a twin blog. In an entry on Critical Fundraising, I explore the implications of the Olive Cooke affair for fundraising ethics and regulation. In this blog on UK Fundraising, I vent my spleen about how this tragic episode has been exploited by those with their own axes to grind against the backbone of the charity sector. I suggest you read both to get a full overview of my thinking on this matter.

I have been angered and sickened by the way Olive Cooke has been used as a  standard bearer for a cause célèbre against charities – which, as the family have intimated, is probably the last thing she would have wanted.

Her name has been invoked in support of various causes and ‘crusades’, both from within and outside the charity sector:

A general media assault on charities, for example, how “despicable charities prey on the elderly”.

Various politicians and other commentators taking media opportunities to “attack irresponsible charities”, even after the family statement suggested this wasn’t the case

Nigel Evans 'Olive Cooke' tweet

Highlighting the lack of ‘humanity’ among charity marketers.

To rebuild public trust in charities.

For reform of Gift Aid.

To abolish reciprocal mailings.

‘Chuggers’ – obviously!

Some organisations that barely have anything to say about fundraising were quick to get in with their two-penn’orth in a blog or press statement. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t, but it would be nice to have their input at other less controversial (and less publicity-grabbing) times.


The media goes to town

The media of course had a field day. We’ve all read the stories by now and we’re all used to the treatment that is meted out to charities by the ‘fourth estate of government’. The stories were fed by a friend of Mrs Cooke giving his personal opinion that the volume of charity mailings and calls she received had driven her to her death. Without cross checking sources, this was presented as fact under headlines such as: ‘Hounded to death by cold callers’, and ‘Shame of charities that drove Olive to hear death’.

Mrs Cooke’s daughter told the Bristol Post on the day that this story first spread like wildfire (Friday May 15) that she did not believe that charity communications had been a factor in her mother’s death. But no other media – apart from UK Fundraising ­– reported this on Friday or over the weekend. The media chose not to use something that would have weakened their main thrust. It wasn’t until the family statement the following week that the notion that fundraising was probably not a contributory factor in Mrs Cooke’s death began to be more widely reported. Even then, it was often couched in terms such that it must have had something to do with it, despite what the family say (see quote below).

Samaritans produces guidelines for the media about how to sensitively report cases of suicide. These recommend that journalists don’t oversimplify the causes or perceived triggers of the suicide, aim for “sensitive, nonsensationalisng coverage”, and try to “educate and inform”. It seems fair to conclude Samaritans’ guidelines were not widely consulted.

The Olive Cooke case is just one more disreputable entry in the ignoble back catalogue of the UK’s media practices.

Here’s a few sample quotes from how the media dealt with this case:

“Every time you went out into the street, a fundraiser accosted you. It was unpleasant and irritating, and it made me like fundraisers less.”

“We will never know to what extent Olive Cooke’s mental health was affected by the onslaught of charity begging letters and phone calls she was subjected to.”

“It seems likely that the charities which sent her hundreds of begging letters must have played a significant contributory part.”

“It’s not enough to harass and worry people and say that you’ll stop if they ask you – especially if they’re frail and vulnerable individuals. The onus is on you not to harass them in the first place.”

These quotes are all from the charity sector media!

Third Sector gave this the most balanced extensive coverage and Stephen Cook’s editorial is worth reading. But what struck me is how much of our sector press, and the marketing media, piled into this debate without offering anything that we couldn’t have got from reading the more informed articles in broadsheets such as the Guardian and The Scotsman, and in very similar language – note the use of pejorative phrases such as ‘begging letters’, ‘bombarded’, ‘onslaught’, ‘harass and worry’. Begging letters?! Since when did charity DM become ‘begging letters’ in our sector media? Only, it seems, with the death of Olive Cooke.

With ‘critical friends’ like these, who needs the Daily Mail?


Don’t yoke Olive Cooke to your personal crusade

Not only did I not know Olive Cooke, I did not know of her until her death. She seemed to be a fine and noble woman. But not knowing her, it’s really not appropriate for me to pay tribute to her. I will leave that to someone who did know her, which you can read here.

But I will say this. Mrs Cooke’s death should not be exploited in the shameless manner adopted by so many, some of whom really, really should know better: an American Twitter user who campaigns against poor fundraising – as he sees it – tweeted that “oversolicitation KILLS”. Within a matter of days, Olive Cooke’s suicide had become a punchline on social media.

The next time you have an issue with some form of charity fundraising, don’t take the lazy route of yoking Olive Cooke to your campaign. Olive Cooke is not a convenient figurehead for your personal crusade to change charities. She was a person who died in tragic circumstances, circumstances that many seem to have ignored or pushed to one side.

Olive Cooke probably had no need or desire to be remembered. But if she did, I feel sure it wouldn’t have been for the campaigns and crusades so many people are linking her name to.


Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

20,242 total views, 1 views today

Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).

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  • Pingback: OPINION: How the Olive Cooke tragedy affects fundraising ethics and self-regualtion | Critical Fundraising()

  • Hi Ian

    Most of the quotes you use to attack the sector press are taken from a piece I wrote on, which interested readers can find here:

    So I thought I had better respond.

    You appear to suggest this means we have an axe to grind against fundraising and the sector. But you’ve quoted rather selectively.

    In my piece I argue that the charity sector must accept the need for stronger fundraising regulation. I make it clear that I do not feel fundraisers caused the death of Olive Cooke, and I say that it is the public mood, not her suicide, which causes me concern. I say that charities cannot ignore behaviour which alienates the public. But it is not individual charities’ actions which is the problem, it is the totality. So all charities must accept stricter rules to make sure that collectively the sector behaves better.

    You have ignored those facts in order to make your own point. Basically you have constructed a straw man.

    Your response also rather misrepresents Civil Society’s broader approach to the issue. We extensively reported the comments of Olive Cooke’s daughter and granddaughter, who said charities were not primarily responsible for her death.

    You also misrepresent the attitude of Olive Cooke’s family, and the lady herself – at least as reported in public statements. Olive Cooke gave an interview to the Bristol Post which was directly critical of fundraisers. And
    her family called for reform of fundraising regulation.

    Her daughter said: “There were issues with the letters she was receiving and calls and we want those to be addressed”.

    That’s pretty clear.

    Of course there is hysteria, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a longstanding grievance in the public mind over this issue. It is our position that some fundraising tactics are harming the sector and need reform. So far we have not addressed exactly what form that reform should take – an issue you have addressed in your other blog – but this is obviously an issue we will cover in detail in due course.

    You will know that in the past – over CEO pay complaints, for example – we have taken a very different tone and defended charities. We feel most media criticism of the sector is unfair, and for this reason we support NCVO, CharityComms and nfpSynergy in their drive to improve public understanding of charities, in order to address some of the grosser inaccuracies.

    • Ian MacQuillin

      Hi David

      I don’t believe you or Civil Society has an axe to grind against the charity sector, so first let me apologise for giving that impression.

      I maintain that others do. Over the days that followed Mrs Cooke’s death, I became more
      and more angry as I watched and listened to increasing numbers of journalists, commentators and politicians climb aboard the bandwagon, so much that at one point it almost drove me to tears of frustration.

      There is a debate to be had about whether more regulation is needed to resolve the questions raised by this tragic episode, which I explore in my blog on Critical Fundraising. My argument in this blog is that some sector journalists could have raised that debate without recourse to pejorative terms such as ‘accosted’, ‘onslaught’, ‘begging letters’ and ‘harass’, and the negative tone and context in which
      they were couched, which I believe were unnecessary and not constructive or helpful in driving the debate forward.

      At no point in this blog have I claimed that Mrs Cooke’s family did not say there were issues with the amount of fundraising communications she received, and in my blog on Critical Fundraising I point out that the charities had “almost certainly” got the balance wrong. However, her family did say that they do not believe that fundraising played a part in the circumstances that led her to take her own life, yet many commentators and opinion formers are content to allow the idea that fundraising did cause her death to carry on unchecked.

      The debate about how much fundraising needs to reform following this tragedy will not be given a cool, calm and rational platform in the national or regional media. I trust that it will in the sector press, and that any calls for reform will be evidenced-based and presented in non-pejorative language. It is the least we can expect from our own sector media.

  • Game over. The Daily Mail is now referring to “Olive’s Law”:

    I suspect fundraisers and charities will have to deal with this handy fiction-becomes-fact response for some time to come.

  • Derek Glass

    Dear Ian, thank you so much for writing this article. David Ainsworth is not the only person in our sector who shamelessly manipulated and distorted this woman’s death to promote his own agenda about how fundraising “should be”.

    Giles Pegram grandstanded about this on 101 Fundraising, and Roger Craver used her death as an excuse to launch into a similar diatribe on The Agitator.

    And like a feeding frenzy, many of our own sector’s top “consultants” and “thought leaders” gleefully tweeted and emailed these articles out to help spread the vitriol to as many people as possible.

    David Ainsworth (and his ideological breathen) have a strategically and financially bankrupt argument against the design, distribution and frequency of modern direct mail fundraising.

    They call for more “regulation” without specifying what that should be. They live in a world of tired cliches and stupid insults, telling the rest of us that we treat donors like ATM’s, and that we are “bombarding” them with “junk”. Roger Craver even calls it “crack”.

    Premium designed, high frequency direct mail programs and strategies have — for decades now — generated superior financial returns for thousands charities worldwide. Yet these people still claim such programs “reduce lifetime value”. If they did, they would not be making so much money — for so many years — for so many charities all over the world.

  • Pingback: The tragic death of Olive Cooke — and the even more tragic aftermath | Print my recipes()

  • Alan Elsegood

    I subscribe around £2,000 per annum to a number of selected charities, including Direct Debits of £100/month. After the stories in the news media, I wrote to all the charities I regularly subscribe to, asking for assurances that they did not and would not sell or purchase my personal data (because, like Olive Cooke and many others, my wife and I get appeals every week which contain enough information to indicate that they are using marketing databases to track us down). Three weeks on, not one of those charities has responded with the assurances I sought. I’ll give them, another week and, if there’s no satisfactory response by then, I will cancel all DDRs and other contributions. From now on, I will only support charities which do not engage in blitz marketing.

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