Olive Cooke ‘overwhelmed’ by donor requests after data sharing between charities, report says

A 92-year-old who killed herself after suffering from depression and insomnia was feeling “overwhelmed” by charity requests made possible by data sharing between charities, a report has said.

| 20th Jan 16
Default CDN Image A 92-year-old who killed herself after suffering from depression and insomnia was feeling "overwhelmed" by charity requests made possible by data sharing between charities, a report has said.

A 92-year-old who killed herself after suffering from depression and insomnia was feeling “overwhelmed” by charity requests made possible by data sharing between charities, a report has said.

Olive Cooke’s details were on file with 99 charities and in one year she received 466 mailings, the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) found, due to the widespread sharing of Mrs Cooke’s personal details by charities she supported.

The FRSB’s investigation into charity fundraising practices commenced on 18th May 2015 after the media reported links between Mrs Cooke’s death and the high volume of fundraising approaches she received. Mrs Cooke’s family later stated that charities had nothing to do with her death, but that she had indeed been distressed by the high number of approaches she was receiving from charities, particularly in the post. Today’s report also summarises complaints about charity fundraising received by the Fundraising Standards Board in the weeks that followed Mrs Cooke’s death.


Generous supporter

The investigation found that Mrs Cooke had been a generous charity supporter, giving to at least 88 charities in her lifetime.  Of the 1,442 charities that participated in the FRSB’s investigation, 99 had Mrs Cooke’s details on file – 19 began contacting her prior to the year 2000 and a further 80 charities had begun corresponding with her since then, with 32 charities initiating contact in the past five years.

With each charity sending Mrs Cooke an average of around six mailings each year, the total number of mailings from the charities in the FRSB’s sample more than trebled from 119 in the year 2000 to a peak of 466 in 2014. The FRSB recognises that the actual amount of mail she is likely to have received from all charities may have been as much as six times higher, according to an interview she conducted with The Bristol Post on 30th October 2014.

A total of 24 of the 99 charities had passed on Mrs Cooke’s contact details to another organisation and seven in ten had obtained her contact details from a third party (such as a fellow charity or commercial data supplier/list broker). The FRSB’s investigation found that Mrs Cooke’s details were held on donor lists maintained by 22 separate commercial data suppliers.


Insufficient procedures

The investigation also identified insufficient opt out procedures in place to enable Mrs Cooke to remove her details from future mailings.

Only 14 of the 99 charities that corresponded with Mrs Cooke offered her the specific opportunity to opt out of future mailings via a tick box in each communication. The large majority required donors to contact the charity proactively and ask to be removed from future mailings.


High volume of complaints

In the three weeks that followed the news of Mrs Cooke’s death (15 May to 5 June 2015), the FRSB received 384 complaints about charity fundraising. Of the complaints received:

  • 70% related to direct mail activity;
  • 42% addressed the frequency of charity communications;
  • 35% were specific to fundraising approaches made to the elderly or vulnerable people;
  • 16% were about how consent is given for charities’ use of contact data, with concerns that the current opting out measures for charity communications was unclear.


The FRSB published these findings in an interim report in June 2015, prompting substantial changes to the Institute of Fundraising’s professional standards for fundraisers (the Code of Fundraising Practice) later that year. As a result of these changes, charities must now provide clear opportunities to opt out of further fundraising approaches in every written communication and forthcoming changes will ban charities from sharing data without express consent.

Andrew Hind, chair of the Fundraising Standards Board, said: “Mrs Cooke’s experience demonstrates the inevitable consequences of a fundraising regime where charities have been willing to exchange or sell the personal details of donors to each other, and to commercial third parties. But Mrs Cooke was not alone. Her experiences were echoed in the many complaints that the FRSB received following her death.”


Welcome findings

Following the publication today of the investigation report, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, Peter Lewis, said: “We welcome the FRSB’s report today following the tragic death of Mrs Olive Cooke who was such a generous supporter of so many causes. We are glad that the FRSB has recognised that the changes agreed to the Code of Fundraising Practice will improve fundraising standards to help to avoid people feeling overwhelmed with approaches from charities in future.

“Fundraising is essential to the good work that charities carry out across the country. We will work to support charities and individual fundraisers to rebuild trust of the public and long-term support from donors.”

Suzanne McCarthy, independent chair of the IoF’s Standards Committee added: “The report highlights several of the important changes that the Standards Committee made over the summer to the Code of Fundraising Practice following the FRSB’s interim report.

“These will help to ensure that people have more control over the contact they have with charities.  The Code bans the selling of supporters’ information.  The Committee will continue to look at ways to improve the Code.