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Finding balance: Olive Cooke and how charities approach the public

Reports suggest Olive Cooke was receiving up to 260 letters from charities every month. Photo: Dvortygirl (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Reports suggest Olive Cooke was receiving up to 260 letters from charities every month. Photo: Dvortygirl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The death of 92-year-old Olive Cooke last week came as a shock, and was quickly linked by the media to the hundreds of letters and cold calls she received from charities every month. Her family later downplayed these claims, but nevertheless the story raises questions about a common tactic used by charities to boost revenue. In this guest blog, Kim considers how those in the charity sector might strike a balance between sales techniques and ethical practice.

Olive Cooke could be described as someone who devoted her life to charity, both as volunteer poppy-seller for the Royal British Legion and as a committed supporter of many causes. Her unexpected suicide last week shocked people in Bristol, where she was a familiar face and something of a local legend, and left people wondering what would push a much-loved 92-year old woman to take her own life.

Initially, the media focused on Cooke’s humanitarian nature and reports that she was receiving up to 260 letters and countless cold calls from charities every month, suggesting that this relentless hounding was a contributing factor in her death. Given a little time, this speculation shifted, helped by Cooke’s family stating that they didn’t believe that attention from charities played a major part in her decision. Regardless of the role charity direct mail and cold calls played in Mrs Cooke’s death, it is revealing that the volume of charity mail was the first clue in determining her motives. It is also clear that 260 letters a month constitutes an unacceptable deluge and raises important questions for charities regarding what forms an ethical approach to donors.

Questioning popular practices

The rise in the use of targeted mailings and regular phone calls by many organisations has changed the public’s perception of charities and the work they do. Olive Cooke’s family quoted her as saying “charities are the backbone of our communities” – as someone who had volunteered her time and donated her money to a wide spectrum of charities for over 75 years, Olive Cooke lived her values and is the type of supporter charities should build lasting relationships with.

The nature of charities has changed from a community-led approach with larger charities now adopting the feel of big business and an increasingly anonymous structure which can often mask the excellent work they do. When on the phone with someone asking you to give an extra £2 a month to their cause, it is hard not to draw parallels with a pushy salesperson trying to persuade you to upgrade your mobile phone handset. This approach has done much to erode public trust in the charities that adopt such tactics and this has ramifications across the whole sector with small organisations being the hardest hit. Trust is the most valuable commodity and the basis of all that they do.

Call center found on Wikipedia
Cold calling has become a common approach for many charities. Photo: Vitor Castillo via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Rebuilding trust

There are many charities that do not engage in direct mailing or cold calling. Most charities are privy to information and personal stories of struggle and hope and recognise the power of this in engaging sponsors. In keeping with a call to honesty, we can sensitively communicate this information and allow potential donors to make an informed choice based on engagement, not pressure. Charities need to remember that people choose the causes that most resonate with them and should build on that initial spark of recognition that drives a person to donate. Social media is an amazing opportunity for charities to adopt new methods of engagement using a low-risk platform on which to explore a broad range of tactics and reach more people. Sensitivity should be the watchword here, charities want people’s time, consideration and donation and we want to achieve donations through regular updates and personal stories. Most charities do amazing work and the issues should speak for themselves and organically lead to donations; more aggressive tactics create an added tinge of guilt that turns a benevolent act into an obligation - an obligation many feel guilty for resenting.

Responding to a crisis

Cold calling might be effective in financial terms, but it is an unsustainable approach that will erode trust in the sector in the long-term. SOS Children is one of a number of charities taking a different approach. Avoiding the use of direct mail to reach donors except on critical occasions, such as in conjunction with a rare emergency appeal – as in the case of the recent Nepal earthquake. This allows the charity to foster a better relationship with those kind enough to donate. Supporters do not feel harangued – and comment on this when surveyed – giving SOS Children a firm basis to foster a long-term relationship. There are occasions where charities do need to increase short-term support to help weather the unexpected; restricting direct mailings to these rare occasions helps to preserve the impact and address a genuine need. The ubiquity of this approach, with many charities sending out multiple mailings a month, dilutes the immediacy of emergency situations and makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate a crisis.

The death of Olive Cooke could be seen as a call to change for major charities. The truth is that all charities need more Olive Cookes to give regularly and across a broad range of causes. Charities need to engage people by sharing their successes and admirable work without relying on heavy-handed guilt-led tactics which result in eventual alienation. Charities need to remove guilt and pressure from the equation and have the confidence to let the great work they do speak for itself. If charities are the backbone of communities, then honesty and integrity provide the vertebrae and structure that hold us upright.

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