UK charities face investigation after death of 'overwhelmed' pensioner

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A charity watchdog launched an investigation on Monday into the fundraising strategies of charities in Britain following the apparent suicide of a 92-year-old woman who received an “overwhelming” number of letters and calls asking for donations.

Olive Cooke was found dead beneath a bridge in Bristol, southwest England, earlier this month, and is believed to have committed suicide partly because she was “exhausted” by requests for money from charities, according to her friends and family.

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB), which runs Britain’s self-regulatory scheme for fundraising, announced an investigation into Cooke’s death and said it had raised serious concerns.

“Following the death of Mrs Cooke, lots of people have come forward to give examples of their loved ones being under duress (from charities), and that is something that must be looked at,” McLean told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cooke, whose first husband was killed in World War Two, sold poppies for the Royal British Legion war veterans charity for 76 years and last year received an award for her fundraising.

An inquest into her death has yet to take place but a police spokeswoman said they were not treating Cooke’s death as suspicious, a term used when suicide is suspected.

Cooke, who was in ill health, told a local newspaper last year she spent most of her pension on monthly charity donations, but was still bombarded with letters and calls asking for more.

She said she received up to 10 letters and several phone calls daily, and believed that charities were selling her details on to others.

“In the end, she wouldn’t answer the phone. That’s what caused a little bit of anxiety. Of course, the next thing we knew, Olive passed away. She was exhausted by this situation,” her friend Michael Earley told the BBC.

The Institute of Fundraising (IoF), which represents some 5,500 individual fundraisers and 420 fundraising charities in Britain, said last week it would bring together representatives from across the charity sector to review Cooke’s death.

“Fundraisers know that it is absolutely critical to maintain public trust and confidence in charities,” said Peter Lewis, IoF chief executive. “An important part of this is to fundraise in the right way and to the highest standards.”

Telephone fundraising generates around 35 million pounds ($55 million) of annual income for charities in Britain.

($1 = 0.6380 pounds)