Jon Wilkins
Jon Wilkins
A view from Jon Wilkins

The tragedy of Olive Cooke reveals a lack of humanity by charity marketers

The voluntary codes of contact under which charities operate do not appear to be working. Jon Wilkins, executive chairman of Karmarama, discusses what the third sector must do to get its house in order - before national or European authorities intervene.

The tragedy of the death of Olive Cooke, one of the country’s oldest poppy sellers, should prompt a period of reflection and soul-searching from the charity sector that, paradoxically, she did so much to support throughout her life.

Cooke, a familiar figure in Bristol, rattling her Poppy Appeal tin outside the cathedral, presents a public image of charitable giving that is no longer born out in reality. While her motives – to remember her father, who fought at Gallipoli, and her first husband, who died in the Second World War – presented the best of individual fundraising charity, the way that the third sector hounded her represents the very worst of what has become a highly competitive industry.

While her family have refuted that the charities are solely to blame for her death, the stress she acknowledged of being bombarded by phone calls and letters from charities is nonetheless shaming. It’s little wonder that the spotlight has been thrown on those data list brokers who sell information on people who already donate to charities.

Context shows data weakness

While entirely legal, the fact that they were doing this without apparently taking into consideration the fact that Cooke was a 92-year-old widow shows one of the weaknesses in data. All that the telemarketing companies and DM agencies cared about was that she was already a "committed giver" – the computer lacked the humanity to say no, and Cooke ended up giving more than anyone could have wanted or predicted.

The charity sector has expressed its regret that Cooke wasn’t signed up to the Telephone or Mail Preference Services that should have screened out the constant contact (at least from the more scrupulous operators that don’t use overseas contact centres). But they seem like inadequate and weasel words from an industry that has become ruthless in the ways that it has adapted to maximise revenue from those who have indicated that they are willing to give in the first place.

We can't rely on whistleblowers

The cloak of obscurity that masks the third sector is rarely lifted, but when it is, the sight it yields is normally not a pleasant one. The spectacle of chuggers and their remuneration schemes (as well as aggressive targeting techniques) has occasionally been exposed by whistleblowers, but a deeper investigation might be needed if charities are to avoid having their house put in order by government or European Union intervention.

The voluntary codes of contact under which charities operate do not seem to be working and the sector is in danger of becoming discredited – driven by greed, like banks, rather than the compassion that attracted many charitable givers.

For a sector that helps plug a gap left by cuts in government spending this would be a shame, especially given that more cuts are on the way. To re-establish trust among a public that is in danger of tiring of being hounded to give more, as well as reassert the good works that charity does, would be at least be the start of a legacy that maybe Olive Cooke might be proud of and certainly deserves.