WHEN it comes to pushy charities, it’s those with the biggest hearts who suffer the most, as Olive Cooke discovered. The 92-year-old poppy seller spent her life giving to good causes, but when her faltering health meant she wanted to (needed to) stop, they wouldn’t let up. Instead of recognising her contribution with a Thank You note or a bunch of flowers, they kept hassling her with begging letters and cold calls, urging her to put her hand in her pocket one last time.
With all the integrity of cowboy builders, they apparently traded on her good nature, guilt- tripping her in the hope she would donate once again. At the height of the bombardment, Cooke, who started selling poppies at 16 after her father served at Gallipoli and continued to sell them after her first husband was killed in the Second World War, was receiving hundreds of letters a month and being plagued by telephone calls.
Earlier this month, she jumped into the Avon Gorge in Bristol. No-one can know for sure what led her to take her own life. Her relatives say she had suffered ill health and had become depressed over £250 which went missing in the post. But the fact remains that in her last year, when she was already frail, she was badly affected by the cynical behaviour of fund- raisers acting on behalf of charities whose whole raison d’être is to improve people’s lives.
There is no suggestion that many people are subjected to the scale of harassment Cooke endured, but a larger number of charities competing for a diminishing amount of cash means those tasked with drumming up donations are going for a harder sell. Most of us have stories to tell, of cold-callers who won’t take No for an answer, and of “chuggers” who urge us to take out a direct debit in lieu of a one-off donation.
There are more sinister tales too: of the details of regular donors finding their way on to “suckers lists” and of fundraisers trained in emotional manipulation.
Just over a year ago, one whistle-blower from GoGen, which employs fundraisers for well-known charities, claimed she was told never to hang up until she had asked for money three times. The easiest people for cold- callers to target are those who are at home most of the day, some of whom will be retired, disabled, unemployed or confused. Yet the fundraisers were told to continue their pitch even if the person on the other end of the phone became distressed.
That aggressive tactics damage a charity’s brand is well-established. A study by nfpSynergy, a consultancy set up to support charities, showed 51 per cent of people are “very annoyed” by telephone fundraising and 54 per cent “very annoyed” by doorstepping.
The problem is, with budgets tight and the UK’s giving culture weak (an NPC survey found less than half of existing donors thought people should give if they had the means) charities are under pressure, and – however much it is despised – pushiness works. Face-to-face donations, either on the street or on doorsteps, are estimated to raise around £130m a year, while in 2014, 14.4 million telephone contacts raised an estimated £35m. But according to the Fundraising Standards Board, between 2010 and 2013, the number of complaints about unsolicited phone calls more than doubled to 8,019.
On the face of it, charities are being forced to choose between a healthy bank balance and a positive reputation. As Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy has pointed out, it doesn’t help that the body that comes up with the guidelines, the Institute of Fundraising, is also the representative body for fundraisers, creating a potential conflict of interest.
Last year, after a complaint about a fundraiser for the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home ignoring a “No Cold-callers” sign, the Fundraising Standards Board concluded that the “complex and ambiguous” legal situation surrounding signage meant its behaviour was not disrespectful, nor had it breached the code of practice. But, it added, the charitable sector could think about setting up its own doorstep opt-out system on the same lines as the telephone preference service.
Saxton, however, believes the fundraising community is fudging the issue. He has pointed out that figures from a recent Future Foundation report show charities make up 51 per cent of doorstep cold-calls, with the next highest – home improvement companies – coming in at just 20 per cent. So when people say they don’t want cold-callers at their home, the chances are it’s charities they are referring to.
Not abiding by people’s wishes is not only discourteous, it is short- termist, maximising today’s income at the expense of tomorrow’s. Yet some charities seem to find it difficult to focus on the future.
Last week, a few of those which Olive Cooke had supported in the past passed on their condolences but insisted they had not breached any guidelines. Sending out “bumf” to those who had given in the past was standard practice, they said, and they had never phoned her.
The Institute of Fundraising’s Standards Committee, on the other hand, said it would bring together representatives from across the charity sector to see if lessons could be learned from her death. At the very least, it should look at the way fundraisers deal with the elderly and find ways to prevent them being deluged.
We know charities are operating in a tough economic climate, that they have to operate like businesses to survive, but that should not mean adopting sharp practices. If they have no interest in protecting the most vulnerable, if they are prepared to use weasel words to justify overbearing behaviour, then they should start to question the point of their own existence. «