OPINION: How the Olive Cooke tragedy affects fundraising ethics and self-regulation

The tragic suicide of Olive Cooke obviously has implications for fundraising ethics. Ian MacQuillin digs below the media hysteria to indentify what the real issues are, and suggest how the fundraising profession should respond.

Olive Cooke did not die because she was ‘hounded’ to her death by charity fundraisers. But in the popular imagination, that’s what happened. That’s how it has been reported in the media, including our own sector press; and that is how it will be continue to be reported.

The investigation by the Fundraising Standards Board will be perceived as an investigation into Olive Cooke’s death, even though the FRSB has stated that it is investigating claims only that she was “overwhelmed” by charity marketing, not that this contributed to her suicide. When the FRSB makes its recommendations and when (not if) the code of practice is amended, they’ll be seen as being a direct response to Mrs Cooke’s death.

“Ethical fundraising must attempt to balance the duty of fundraisers to ask the public for support, with the rights of the public not to be subject to undue pressure to donate”

The problem for the fundraising sector is that it is going to be very difficult to separate the real issues that this tragic episode has brought to light, from the different set of issues that exist in the media-fuelled popular imagination. We might focus on fixing those issues that the media shouts loudest about, but not the real issues, which may require a different approach to solve.

This is part of a twin blog. Here I look at the implications of the Olive Cooke case to fundraising self-regulation and ethics. Its sister blog resides on UK Fundraising, where I explain how sickened I have been by the number of people who have used Mrs Cooke’s tragic death to further their own agendas, seemingly without a second thought for the woman herself.

The blog explores:

  • Whether fundraising will be able to separate the real issues raised in this case from those presented in the media hype
  • How fundraising ethics should balance the needs of donors and beneficiaries
  • Why using Olive Cooke as a benchmark for such an approach could result in fundraisers failing in their duty to ask enough people
  • Whether some regulations should be relaxed rather than tightened
  • How a ‘total relationship marketing’ approach could improve donor experiences by improving charities’ relationships with their agencies.

(Over)reacting to populist demands and fears

Public opinion wants “despicable” charities and their greedy middlemen (agencies) to stop hounding, bullying and deliberately targeting vulnerable people (I paraphrase the national mood as reported in the national media).

How could this be done?

It is probable that no individual charity that was contacting Mrs Cooke did anything wrong: very probably each communication she received was compliant with the code of practice and the law. The issue is not that she was overwhelmed by any single charity, but that she had relationships with so many charities that cumulatively they were overwhelming.

So the task for charities is to prevent donors being overwhelmed by the sum total of their relationships with charities.

First, charities could simply stop asking the general public for donations through all forms of direct marketing. I’m being serious. One sure fire way to avoid anyone being overwhelmed by charity fundraising would be to ensure no-one was ever put in that position by not asking anyone via direct mail, telephone, face-to-face etc.

Of course, that’s a daft suggestion. If charities stopped asking people for money, people would stop giving to them.

So instead of prohibiting asking individuals per se, the code could be amended to state that donors could only receive a fixed number of communications a year from any charity they support. Effectively this would outlaw supporter journeys. Supporter journeys are complicated communications road maps. They look like this:

Supporter Journey

This is a genuine supporter journey template. Since Olive Cooke, it is reported, at one point had 27 Direct Debits to charities, it’s reasonable to assume that she was on at least 27 variants of a supporter journey like this one – that’s 27 Olive Cooke avatars at various points along 27 different charities’ communications programmes. Writing on the Critical Fundraising blog a few weeks ago, Liz Waldy wrote how supporter journeys eschew genuine supporter care by shoehorning donors into preassigned programmes.

Under this approach, all charities are treated equally as part of a Stalinist-esque planned fundraising economy. Doesn’t matter if you are the Red Cross or the local wildlife trust, you are permitted the same fixed number of communications, say two mailings and one telephone call a year. But that would still have left Olive Cooke receiving an average of 1.6 charity communications a week just from her regular charities, excluding any other databases she had found herself on – enough to overwhelm some people.

“Banning reciprocal exchanges won’t prevent a person being ‘overwhelmed’ by street or doorstep fundraisers or their progression along whatever supporter journey they are travelling”

If some charities feel hard done by, then one option is to feed all donor data into a central register and run some kind of allocation programme that equitably distributes donor communications slots to charities based on a number of factors such as the donor’s Recency Frequency Value (RFV) figure, the number of charities they support, and perhaps their age (a proxy for vulnerability). Data protection issues aside, creating such a database and the algorithm to run it would probably be feasible, even if extremely expensive.

Or the code could simply prevent asking anyone over a certain age, say, the official retirement age (which would kill legacy marketing at a stroke).

None of these options seems attractive. Some may have assumed that I am constructing a gang of straw men just so I can line them up in deference of the status quo of direct marketing fundraising. I’m not. I’m using these examples to illustrate two points.

First, to respond to the populist demands about fundraising that have arisen following Olive Cooke’s death, it is changes to the structure of the code just such as these that will be needed, if we choose the route of setting limits on what fundraisers can and can’t do. The FRSB is hinting at doing something radical with reciprocal list exchanges. However radical this is – even banning them altogether – it won’t deal with the popular objections, which are to protect the elderly from being “deliberately harassed”. Banning reciprocal exchanges won’t prevent a person being ‘overwhelmed’ by street or doorstep fundraisers or their progression along whatever supporter journey they are travelling.

So if, after a four-month investigation, the FRSB announces a switch from opt-out to opt-in for the sharing of donor information with other charities, this seems unlikely to satisfy the media-driven popular hive-mind, which is clamouring for something far more concrete – such as a total prohibition on asking in certain ways, which is precisely what one Member of Parliament, Nigel Evans, is calling for – a restriction on the number of letters a charity can send to potential donors.

Getting the balance right

The second reason why these suggestions seem like straw men is that they are clearly an overreaction to the situation. Some people feel overwhelmed, so we should strip supporter journeys to the bone or stop asking altogether?! Yes, of course they’re an over-reaction. And that is because the proposed solution is not proportionate to the scale of the issue.

Writing in Third Sector, consultant Valerie Morton said the Olive Cooke case shows that charities haven’t got the balance right between poor and good fundraising. Morton says charities ignore public disquiet by resorting to the “classic rationale” of ‘we know it annoys a lot of people but it raises lots of money’. Morton says we are using this defence to blind ourselves to the “groundswell of opinion” that we are not doing fundraising well.

“It is unethical to put too much pressure on donors by asking too much or too aggressively. It is also unethical not to ask enough those people who have the capacity to respond to those asks”

But that is not the balance we need to redress. Olive Cooke probably wasn’t subjected to poor fundraising (it might not have been particularly good, but it probably wasn’t bad – i.e. it was legal, compliant with the code, and proven to work). Good (or ‘not bad’) fundraising can still leave people feeling ‘overwhelmed’ if they perceive they are subject to too much of it (if you define ‘poor fundraising’ as that which pisses some people off, then you’re merely begging the question).

The balance we need to strive for through self-regulation and our codes of ethics is not between poor and good fundraising. Instead we need to balance the conflict between the varying levels of privacy desired by members of the public – their desire not to be asked, or not to be asked in certain ways – and fundraisers’ duty to intrude into their personal spaces to ask them.

Ethical fundraising in this respect attempts to balance the duty of fundraisers to ask the public for support, with the rights of the public not to be subject to undue pressure to donate.

Was this balance right for Olive Cooke? Probably, perhaps almost certainly, not.

But Olive Cooke was not a typical donor. Not only was she older than most donors, with an approach to charity and charitable giving that was grounded in a strong sense of personal duty, rather than the social exchange of the baby boomers, but she also gave regularly to far more charities than average. She was several standard deviations away from the mean.

“If change is needed, charities need to want to change they way the acquire donors, not just change a few things, such as the size of the opt-out box, because the self-regulatory bodies have told them to do it”

If we use Olive Cooke as a benchmark to recalibrate the balance between fundraisers’ duty to ask and the public’s right not to be subjected to undue pressure, then we will make sure that people such as Mrs Cooke are not ‘overwhelmed’ by charity marketing, for certain. But in so doing, we’ll create a whole series of unbalanced relationships with those donors who can not just soak up a heavier load of charity marketing and fundraising, but respond to it – donors are who more typical, in terms of their demographics and RFV, than Mrs Cooke.

Without doubt, it is unethical to put too much pressure on donors by asking too much or too aggressively. It is also unethical not to ask enough those people who have the capacity to respond to those asks. It’s unethical because it means fundraisers will not raise as much money as they could have done to provide services for their beneficiaries, to whom they owe an ethical duty as great as, if not greater than, the duty they owe to their donors. This is why getting the balance right is so vital.

Banning charities from sharing information or restricting the number of times they may contact a donor or potential donor has real world implications for the people that both the fundraisers and donors are trying to help – the beneficiaries.

Less regulation, not more

It seems obvious that we ought not construct ethical policies ­– if they are intended to be universally applied ­– around such an atypical donor as Mrs Cooke, because it will diminish charities’ abilities to help their beneficiaries.

So how are we to get the balance right for atypical donors such as Olive Cooke?

The solution may well lie in less regulation rather than more.

For example, the Code of Practice sets specific guidance around scripts that telephone fundraisers should use, recommending (though not explicitly requiring) that fundraisers should not deviate from the pre-agreed script. As Tony Charalmbides has argued, rigidly adhering to the script doesn’t allow a genuine two-way conversation with a donor: the donor is being talked to but not listened to. Allowing fundraisers to deviate from the script and use their initiative to interpret the tone and mood of the conversation might empower them with the autonomy to decide if the person they are speaking to is vulnerable. It empowers fundraisers to terminate a conversation as well as take it in a different direction in pursuit of a gift.

Another area where regulation might be relaxed is around remuneration. Payment by commission is outlawed by the Code of Practice. However, a mixed method of remunerating fundraisers, perhaps a salary or wage augmented by commission on bonus payments after six months or a year, providing the donor is still giving, might incentivise fundraisers to focus less on bumping up their acquisition numbers. Of course, they’ll need the support of their agencies and their charities.

And herein lies the biggest obstacle to realising the demanded change triggered by Mrs Cooke’s death.

Both these measures would require more training for the fundraisers and an acceptance that short-term acquisition might fall (in return for better medium-term retention rates). They would increase the cost per acquisition (CPA) of each donor. In short, they would make fundraising more expensive.

And charities don’t seem prepared to pay for this.

Don’t blame the agencies

Fundraising costs money, as charities are quick to point out when politicians and the media criticise the amount of money ‘wasted’ on fundraising and admin costs. Yet charities aren’t prepared to spend the amount of money they need to get high-quality committed donors at the outset.

Donor acquisition is focused on getting as many new donors on to the supporter journey as possible, with the initial recruitment cost often being a loss leader. Charities stomach the high attrition levels of some recruitment methods because there are so many new donors being fed into the machine that the income they deliver offsets the income lost through attrition. It’s a simple cost:benefit equation that favours cheap mass recruitment of low quality donors over the more expensive targeted recruitment of fewer high quality donors who will stay giving for longer.

“Many agencies will be able to tell you stories of being screwed on price, given unrealistically high short-term targets, and being cut off at the knees as soon as there’s a whiff of trouble”

Mark Astarita has characterized this as the ‘Primarkisation’ of giving – pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. You keep asking for £2 a month and are surprised when no-one is prepared to give you more. So you have to keep asking more and more people for £2 a month rather than fewer for £10, and upgrade them through your supporter journey programme in order to turn a profit, knowing you’ll lose a batch of them along the way.

We can tinker or change the code all we like, but while charities remain so focused on cheap acquisition and are prepared to accept high attrition rates, abuses are bound to happen as the path of least resistance around any new strictures in the code is inevitably uncovered and exploited.

Instead, we need to find a way to change the whole ‘cheap acquisition’ mindset of charity fundraising.

One way might be to rethink what we mean by ‘relationship fundraising’. Relationship fundraising lionizes the idea of donor satisfaction, the quality of the donor experience and ‘putting the donor at the heart of’ charity communications, almost to the point of ideology. And yet there are plenty of donors, such as Olive Cooke, who do not receive the quality of service demanded under the relationship fundraising doctrine. So often when that happens, charities throw up their hands in faux surprise and shock, blame their agencies, and remind those agencies of their ‘responsibilities’ to uphold the charity’s reputation.

But agencies are only doing what their charity clients are paying them to do, and providing a level of service quality commensurate with that payment. As the saying goes, you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Many, if not most, agencies will be able to tell you stories of being screwed on price, given unrealistically high short-term targets, and being cut off at the knees as soon as there’s a whiff of trouble.

‘Total Relationship Fundraising’

There’s currently only one dimension to relationship fundraising – the relationship with the donor. And yet the quality of donor service often suffers because the charity has a poor relationship with its agency.

Relationship fundraising would do well to adapt the idea of ‘total relationship marketing’ developed by Swedish marketing academic Evert Gummesson.

Gummerson identifies 30 distinct relationships that ‘total relationship marketers’ need to contend with in their marketing strategies – including those with other parties such as customers, supply chain, regulators, media, umbrella bodies; and with intangible factors such as environmental friendliness, employee recruitment market etc. The 30 relationship types are grouped into four categories:

Classic market relationships – the three ‘classic’ networks of supplier-customer dyad, supplier-customer-competitor triad, and distribution channels.

Special market relationships – aspects of the classic relationships, such as dissatisfied customers, digital relationships etc.

Mega relationships – which exist above market relationships and establish the conditions the market relationships exist in, focusing on the domains of public opinion, lobbying, and political power.

Nano relationships – operate below market relationships within the organization (they are therefore intraorganizational relationships, for example, internal markets, relationships between departments etc).

These four categories of relationship are arranged in a concentric Russian doll manner known as the ‘relationship doll’, with nano relationships at the centre, enclosed successively first by classic market relationships, then special market relationships, and finally mega relationships.

The insight is that fundraisers cannot maintain a narrow focus on the donor if the relationships they neglect (such as with their agencies, or colleagues who hold the ‘necessary evil’ mindset about fundraising) result in, or contribute to, a diminished donor experience.

Moving to a ‘total relationship fundraising’ ethos might not move donor acquisition away from its Primark locus overnight, but it will be a start in improving donor experiences by treating agencies more fairly, and perhaps acknowledging that charities need to pay them for a better quality for service.

What we owe Olive Cooke

If the fundraising sector decides that the Olive Cooke case raises issues that must be resolved, then it is important that we don’t make changes merely to satisfy public opinion: the ethically correct thing to do in any situation is rarely decided by public vote.

Amending the code might be something that is needed. But if change is needed, charities need to want to change the way they acquire donors, not just change a few things, such as the size of the opt-out box, because the self-regulatory bodies have told them to do it.

They must want to change. And they must want do what is needed to make change happen, and that might not just be to amend the Code of Practice. If we owe anything to Olive Cooke, it is this.

Associate members

3 thoughts on “OPINION: How the Olive Cooke tragedy affects fundraising ethics and self-regulation”

  1. Really interesting and thought provoking blog Ian. I should point out that my piece in Third Sector was only promoted by the sad story of Olive Cooke – it was not about her situation. It was a piece I had been thinking about writing for some time and was predominately about how I do not feel charities do enough to appreciate the long term impact of the tactics they employ.

    In all the analysis that will be taking place in the coming weeks, including reviews of the current IOF Codes, I hope we do not fall in to the trap of discriminating against people because of their age or other circm,stances . I would be horrified if, when I reach 65, there is a law/code that stops charities from asking me for money. I except to be perfectly capable of making my OWN decision thank you. We also need to be aware that some of the conversations in the past few weeks have given the impression that fundraising is about getting people to do something they don’t want to do. Quite the opposite – it is about empowering people to make a difference. If we get to the situation when a piece of work – buying a nature reserve, carrying out medical research or running a helpline – does not happen because the fundraiser felt they could not ask it would be an absolute disaster for society as a whole.


  2. Why not the simple approach of a register where members of the public can register their details I.e. Phone and address if they no longer want to receive any requests for donations. Personally, once I have had any unsolicited contact from a charity either by phone or doorstep, I make sure I never ever donate to that charity again.

    If I wish to donate to a charity I know where to go to find out how to do so, but knowing my details are surely going to be passed on it becomes rarer that I donate money. I am more likely to donate items to a local charity shop instead.


    1. May I ask you David, why you never give to a charity if that charity asks you to donate by phone or doorstep? I’d like to understand what it is about such unsolicited requests from a charity that upset you.


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