Olive Cooke, aged 92, was one of Britain’s longest-serving poppy sellers. This week her body was recovered from the Avon Gorge – apparently she had committed suicide. There could be several reasons behind this, but close relatives suspect that the intense pressure she felt from several charities to donate to their causes was one of them.
As state provision retreats, charities are increasingly called upon to plug the gaps. Most people will have noticed their increasingly high profile – the mushrooming number of charity shops on our high streets, regular news stories of people running marathons for good causes, television fundraising marathons and, most irritatingly for many, the presence of the dreaded “chuggers” on our high streets. Most of these activities are worthwhile and certainly the human impulse to help out others is a worthy one. But the arrival of professional fundraisers, some of them very well paid, is beginning to blur the line between tin-rattling and harassment.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to cold-calling tactics. They are often lonely, and come from a generation where good manners and civility were more prized than they are now. It is hard for them to say no. And it is a regrettable fact of life that those who have already opened their hearts and pockets are seen as low-hanging fruit for charities seeking regular donations. My partner and I have supported a number of charities for years, but no matter how deserving the cause may appear to be, there are times when we decide against adding a new one to the list. The reason is both sad and simple – charities are increasingly reluctant to leave you alone after an isolated act of generosity. I can think of one particularly prominent organisation that fulfils a desperate social need shamefully overlooked by the state, I am in complete sympathy with their aims, but I know from personal experiences that their fundraising model is offensive and intrusive. So their nice young workers get no response from me.
I have an elderly relative in his early 90s; he lives alone and is comfortably off. He is the kindest and most easy-going of chaps but the sheer volume of appeals that flood in daily have become a major irritation for him. Many such people have a lifetime of public service behind them and have, frankly, done their bit. They don’t want to be infirm and housebound, helplessly watching endless human crises unfold on their TV screens and feeling powerless to intervene. Some of them are old enough to remember a time when their classmates died in the night because their parents couldn’t afford a doctor, when families were broken up and siblings shipped off to Australia after the death of a parent from TB, even the threat of the workhouse looming over the destitute. Saying no to a charity is not something such people do lightly, but they deserve not to be pestered. Charities may not realise the sheer volume of requests elderly donors receive, and how seriously they are taken. The chucking of an unwanted appeal in the bin is an act of discourtesy that sits uneasily with the lonely elderly, all too aware of their own vulnerability.
The proliferation of charitable endeavours, the increasing competition between them and the growing stridency of their fundraising efforts is not so much a flowering of open-heartedness as the symbol of a dysfunctional social safety net. In theory, their activities are regulated, but digital natives who think in terms of mailing lists and databases need to be more aware of the people behind the names on envelopes, and put robust systems in place to ensure that when someone says they’ve done, and had, enough, their wishes are respected.