Pressure Rises Against Charity Fundraising Techniques in U.K.

In the wake of an elderly woman's tragic suicide, questions have increasingly been raised about whether her generosity toward charities—and the resulting aggressive donation efforts that followed—had an effect on her mental health. At least one major charity has said it would stop relying on cold-calling entirely.

The death of a woman apparently dogged by aggressive charity fundraising tactics has many in the United Kingdom—including some of the charities—wondering whether things have gone too far.

In May, 92-year-old Olive Cooke—who had gained prominence as a longtime seller of poppy flowers for the British Legion—jumped to her death. Early stories about Cooke’s death suggested that she felt hounded by the many charities that she had supported throughout her life. But while her family says that wasn’t the root cause of her suicide, it nonetheless drew negative attention to the approaches many charities use when asking for donations.

Charities’ Conduct Questioned

Cooke’s death led to a rise in public comments about the practices of prominent charities, such as Oxfam and the British Red Cross.

A recent Guardian report highlighted the high-pressure situations that charity cold-callers work under; a Daily Mail piece, meanwhile, noted a massive increase in complaints about charity fundraising practices in 2014.

This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron joined in on the criticism, saying that his government would take actions to rein in bad actors.

“Our charities undertake vital work, bringing communities together and providing support to some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” Cameron said, according to the London Evening Standard. “But the conduct of some fundraisers used by them is frankly unacceptable and damages the reputation of the sector as a whole, which is why we’re introducing a new law to make sure charities raise funds in the right sort of way.”

In comments to The Drum, the Direct Marketing Association emphasized that it’s in the best interests of nonprofit marketers to act ethically—even if a given technique is technically legal.

“Because trust is vital for growing any business, charities do need to do some work to rebuild trust,” the association said in a statement. “Looking at what the law allows is not enough. Just because something is legal does not mean that this is the right standard of behavior.”

Hanging Up on Cold Calls

The saga has had a significant effect on one charity’s practices.

Save the Children, the prominent British charity that’s been in operation for nearly a century, pledged last week to end its practice of cold telephone calls, largely in response to the criticism. The nonprofit also emphasized that it would not share data with other organizations, and that it would increase oversight of its call centers.

“We have to get the right balance between raising much needed money, with making sure members of the public who want to help us save lives and give every child the chance to learn, feel respected and valued,” Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth said in a news release.

Forsyth went even further in an op-ed he wrote for The Guardian, saying that U.K. charities need a stronger regulatory touch in the private sector.

“We need one strong body to regulate charity fundraising, like the Advertising Standards Association, rather than the current confused structure,” he explained. “And, there needs to be sanctions against any charity which fails to meet the new standards set. That could include publishing mistakes on our own websites, like newspapers do, to show when we have been found wanting.”

The British charity Save the Children has pledged to change its fundraising practices following recent controversy. (Susan Warner/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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