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Charity figureheads

"Prince Harry plays sitting volleyball with wounded warriors, Misty May-Treanor [Image 2 of 7]" by DVIDSHUB is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In March 2021 Prince Harry took a job at the coaching and mental health organisation BetterUp. As someone used to being vilified by the press, it was perhaps no surprise to the prince that his appointment attracted criticism.

Some people rushed to condemn him, as well as the directors of BetterUp for their decision. These disgruntled members of the public claimed that Harry’s role as ‘Chief Impact Officer’ within the organisation shouldn’t be allowed, given his lack of official qualifications in the field. User experience, whilst valid, they pontificated, does not make one an expert nor someone equipped to advise others.

Other critics claimed that BetterUp were simply trying to raise their profile by hiring the senior royal.

Er, yes…that’s the whole point!

It is so, so difficult—especially for new/smaller charities and social enterprises—to reach all four corners of the country with their message. It can either take years or a lot of money that could be better spent delivering solutions to the beneficiaries of their cause.

BetterUp, with Prince Harry out front, will attract a lot of interest, a lot of column inches and plenty of donors from his very wide, very privileged network. Achieving all of this for the cost of one high profile person’s salary is probably a good deal. The company insists that Harry’s appointment is more than simply a PR stunt; however, critics suggest that his lack of work experience outside the Royal Family and the army would not make him a natural choice for roles at the bottom of the ladder, let alone a tailored, executive position.

Prince Harry isn’t the first celebrity ambassador of a charity. Practically every cause looks to their network or their locality for famous names who could represent them. A much wider reach is one benefit; having a celebrity figurehead also brings greater credibility.

The royals represent hundreds of charities between them. These range from small, specific causes to charities everyone has heard of. Individually, they only agree to a certain number of patronages, ‘to ensure each cause receives an equal amount of their time and attention’.

Some are personally chosen—like in the case of Prince Harry, who has been a mental health advocate for many years. He cites his mother’s untimely death as one of the reasons he attended mental health therapy for his own wellbeing. The Royal Family, collectively, is characteristically private, but this is something he has never hidden from the public.

His stepmother, the Duchess of Cornwall, is President of the National Osteoporosis Society. Given that her mother and grandmother both died from brittle bone disease, it’s no surprise that she may feel passionately about this cause. Her involvement no doubt raises the profile of the organisation and leads to more donations, which could result in better treatment for sufferers of the condition and research into possible cures.

This was the subject of some research carried out by Giving Evidence in 2019 (published in 2020), i.e. concerning whether royal patronages actually help the charities they represent. They found that the benefits to a charity seem to directly correspond to royal visits, and whether the charity in question was founded by a Royal Family member (2% of all royal patronages) and royal visits.

Visits to charities founded by a royal took up 36% of their total annual engagements. Visits to existing charities represented just 1% of their commitments. Some charities with royal patronages hadn’t seen their ‘royal’ in person for more than a decade.

Giving Evidence also suggested that some donations received from high profile donors took so much time to deal with that the financial value of the associated staff hours often exceeded the donation amount.

Whilst these findings suggest that royal patronages don’t have much impact on a good cause, it doesn’t suggest that they do any harm either—and when trying to raise awareness of a cause, any help is welcome. Perhaps, in view of Giving Evidence’s findings, charities shouldn’t go all out for a royal endorsement at the expense of attracting ambassadors and donors from other sectors; they should instead adopt the guise that if it happens, it happens.

Celebrity endorsements come with similar considerations. If you have a celebrity who pushes the work of your charity much more than shouting about their involvement with your cause, you may please the cynics out there; however, you also run the risk that celebrities live their life in the public eyes…so any contradictory or damaging behaviour will be on view for all to see. For example, according to nfpSynergy, ‘Naomi Campbell showed off a fur Christmas gift after having fronted PETA’s ‘rather go naked than wear fur’ campaign. Scarlett Johansson was forced to quit her ambassador role with Oxfam over her decision to appear in an advertising campaign for SodaStream, who own a factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. In both of these instances, the endorsements not only damaged the credibility of the star but also the integrity of their partner charity also.’

The thing about ambassadors—celebrity, royal or otherwise—is that they’re not employees. They have their own mind and opinions and they’re free to do whatever they want to. Having an ambassador that is passionate about your cause and who wants to help you reach a much bigger audience is a huge coup; however, these honorary staff members still need some level of management. I’d never dissuade any organisation from gathering a pool of keen, informed, effective representatives, because ambassadors can do some very valuable work. All I’d say is tread carefully, manage them well, and don’t assume they will be the route to instant success.


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