A Fundraising Standards Board investigation into the furore sparked by the death of Olive Cooke reveals wide-scale breaches of data laws, with only 14 of the 99 charities which targeted her for donations consistently providing a tick-box to opt out of future mailings.
The report details a catalogue of bad practice, including 56 charities which required Cooke to proactively contact them if she wished to opt out and a further 16 which failed to provide her with any opportunity to do so.
It demands a “behavioural shift” in the way charities view their donors and backs – in principle at least – the development of the controversial Fundraising Preference Service.
Cooke, 92, committed suicide in May last year, with many national newspapers blaming her death on the fact she was inundated with charity mailings. However, an inquest into her death later revealed she had been suffering from depression for years and her family went on to confirm it had nothing to do with charities.
Of the 99 charities detailed in the investigation, she donated to 88; 48 of them regularly. Seventy said they had received her details from a third party, either through a list bought from another charity or a commercial list broker, or through an exchange of data with another charity.
Seventeen charities, 11 of which received regular donations from Cooke, said they did not even know where they had sourced her details.
The report says that in virtually all cases in which Cooke’s details had been shared, the permission to pass on the data had been assumed, and charities had relied on the fact that she had not proactively opted out of data sharing.
The FRSB calculated that Cooke had received a peak of at least 460 letters from charities in 2014. However, it did admit this could have been just a drop in the ocean; Cooke told the Bristol Post in October 2014 that she had received 267 charity letters in one month.
“While the level of contact by each individual charity seems reasonable (averaging at under six mailings per year), some responsibility for the volume of communication must be taken by those charities which had, over the years, passed on Mrs Cooke’s contact details either to other charities or commercial list brokers without seeking her clear permission to do so,” the report states.
Andrew Hind, chair of the FRSB, added: “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.”
The findings have also brought a stiff rebuke from the DMA. Managing director Rachel Aldighieri 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.”
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