Have charities gone a bridge to far?

The story of poppy-seller Olive Cooke’s death at Bristol’s suspension bridge created quite a few headlines across the spectrum of our media, raising concerns about whether charities hound their donors too much.

The fact that an old woman felt driven to take her own life is truly a tragic story. And the media seems to be going for an easy target and is ready to blame charities as the cause of Olive’s death. But is this story a little too simplified?

Stand back and look at the bigger picture: It appears that Olive was a kind and generous person who wanted to give and help. She’d done so for decades, and in the course of time seems to have, with all the best intentions, subscribed herself to too many causes.

While each one of these charities will have gone through normal communications processes that guard against making too many approaches, the culmination of dozens of charity communications overlapping all at the same time would have appeared overwhelming.

It may very well be the case that she either didn’t have the skill, will-power or mental agility to act on the unsubscribe options available. And all the while, none of the charities she had subscribed to would have been aware of the quantity of comms she was receiving. Culminating in an intense feeling of pressure on Olive.

For the media to attack charities because of this is however misdirected. Yet still, as you can see from the statements made, all the charities involved are going through damage limitation processes, by accepting some liability, expressing concern, and promising to review their processes. What else can they do?

But the reality is that it is impossible for anybody to know if somebody has over-subscribed themselves and is receiving too many communications. This doesn’t simply apply to charities, but is a symptom of modern marketing which invariably will fail some people.

Some of you will know from first-hand experience that if you’ve lived somewhere for many years, and never opted to register your mailing preferences, you are likely to be receiving a regular deluge of catalogues, brochures and leaflets (unless you never register with anything and therefore never got put on a marketing database). And the longer you stay at the same address, the more of these comms you will continue to receive.

While Olive’s story hit the headlines, in part because charities are full of ‘do-gooders’ and therefore not supposed to ‘bully’ people, the reality is that there a probably hundreds, if not thousands of old or vulnerable people living in houses stuffed full of junk mail, because they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of comms coming their way – and without the skill or knowledge fight against the deluge. While this is probably happening somewhere down your road, it just doesn’t quite make as good a headline.

So where do we go from here? In this age of ‘big society’, as envisioned by an emboldened Conservative government, there will be even more demand for charities to step in and help the unfortunate on the receiving end of austerity cuts. To be able to help people in crisis, charities have to go out and market themselves. But with some 150,000 charities registered in the UK, it is tough to stand out from the crowd. But while sophisticated, targeted marketing is the best way to get the best results for your cause, will you ever know if your donors are over-subscribing?

So the question is: could there be more Olives’ in the future? Sadly, I suspect so. But this story could trigger a great opportunity to innovate, to create a new mechanism that empowers those who donate and subscribe to charities, and gives charities a better insight into the preferences of their supporters? Watch this space. New ideas might could be on their way.

Note: A few weeks after the media frenzy and bad PR for charities Olive Cooke’s family went public, declaring that charities were not to blame for her death. Which was further explored in a brilliant Guardian article.