On 20 May 2015 a story broke in the British newspaper The Daily Mail that has been making big waves for UK based charities. It was the tale of Olive Cooke, a volunteer who sold poppies for the Royal British Legion for 76 years but who killed herself, apparently in part due to feeling hounded by charities asking her for money.
“Mrs Cooke, from the Fishponds area of Bristol, dedicated 76 years of her life to raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies. She also supported numerous charities and at one point received 267 charity letters in one month asking for cash, leading to suggestions the hounding for money pushed her to take her own life.”
Mrs Cooke’s family have been reported as saying that “the amount of contact from charities was starting to escalate and get slightly out of control, and the phone calls were beginning to get intrusive, but there is no blame or suggestion that this was a reason for her death” but this has not stopped the media and politicians from arguing hard that fundraising self-regulation is not working. Queue lots of hand-wringing, discussion, debate and promised action within bodies such the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB), Institute of Fundraising (IoF) and occasional contribution from NCVO, ACEVO and the like.
Fundraising does indeed have some lessons to learn from this case. Self-regulation isn’t perfect, improvements do need to be made but, frankly, nobody within the system has ever claimed it to be perfect. Having spent six years as a member of the IoF Standards Committee I have seen the development of fundraising self-regulation from the inside. I can personally testify that issues which at first appear simple and obvious are rarely so and that those calling for quick and easy solutions simply reveal their ignorance of the fundraising world.
But this blog is not a defence of fundraising and attempts by fundraisers to self-regulate. No, my fear is that by following the tragic death of Mrs Cooke with a myopic focus on fundraising, the voluntary sector (third sector, civil society or whatever you want to call it) will miss some key lessons that should be learnt.
Lessons that speak to the fundamental nature of professional  charities in the 21st century.
Lessons that arguably have a more profound impact on public trust than whether the mechanics of fundraising self-regulation are completely effective (if that were even an achievable or realistic goal).
You see in all the reporting and subsequent discussion & debate about the implications of Mrs Cooke’s death, nobody in the sector seems to be placing any value on the 76 years of committed volunteering service she gave to the Royal British Legion. These many years of service get barely a passing reference in the developing narrative about what lessons can be learnt.
I believe this speaks volumes about the current state of British professional charities. Charities where the donated hour of a volunteer is given subordinate status to the donated pound of a donor.
Look at the language there.
Donor is someone who gives money. Giving is the act of giving money. Time doesn’t factor. Giving time doesn’t count. Who cares if Mrs Cooke had 76 years service as a volunteer, so long as she upped her donations by a few pounds a week .
Charities have all kinds of resources at their disposal to achieve their missions. The moment any mission driven, non-profit organisation sees money as the main or sole driver of them bringing about social change is the moment it becomes no different to a for-profit corporation.
Businesses have to have money to grow, to develop, to produce, to serve etc.. Charities do not. Sure, money is nice and it allows us to do things we might not otherwise do, but it is not all there is.
21st century professional charities have to accept that people are getting less and less tolerant of being asked to give more and more money when they have less and less to spare. They have to develop and strengthen alternative ways of resourcing their work, letting go of outdated orthodoxies that money is all they need.
Volunteering is one such alternative resources and I would of course argue needs to taken far more seriously. In fact that is a regular theme of my blogging as frequent visitors to this blog and my writing for Third Sector online will know. But it needs to go further than that. An attitude shift across the sector is needed, not just amongst fundraisers.
For example, if senior managers push fundraisers to generate more and more income because those managers have no concept of how anything can be achieved unless it is paid for by cold hard cash, then it is unsurprising if the public feel might hounded for donations.
If staff are wasteful with money (as sadly they can be) then that contributes to the need to generate more and more income.
If staff refuse to consider working with any / more volunteers, insisting that only paid people can do anything meaningful in a charity, then they also contribute to pressure to raise more funds.
Fundraisers alone cannot be held responsible nor can they be the only ones expected to learn from this. If they are then I fear the sector will learn little from the sad death of Olive Cooke.
I stress professional here because when we talk about ‘the sector’ we tend to be talking about the small but high profile minority of charities who have fundraised incomes and paid staff. The vast majority of good causes have little or no income and operate solely through volunteer effort. ↩
I should point out that the Royal British Legion whom Mrs Cooke volunteered for has not be accused of being one of the charities who pursued her for donations. No link between her volunteering for them and them pursuing her for money is drawn or implied. ↩