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
Highlighting the lack of ‘humanity’ among charity marketers.
To rebuild public trust in charities.
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.