In a few hours in September, the profile of youth homelessness charity Centrepoint rocketed to global proportions. Such was its attraction it made the headlines in the United States’ Minnesota Herald Review as well as countless other newspapers in North America and Europe. Why? Because the worldwide media was gripped by the news that Prince William had taken up his first patronage, at Centrepoint, and in doing so was following in the footsteps of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.
Centrepoint chief executive Anthony Lawton is delighted about William’s involvement. “This is an important public statement about including some of the most socially excluded young people n society,” he says.
So, how did the appointment come about? Charities wanting a member of the royal family to become involved in their work target those who are known to have an interest in their cause, and this is what Centrepoint did with William. When he went to university three years ago the prince gave an interview in which he voiced his concern about homeless young people, and it was at that point that the charity started thinking about approaching him.
Then, in September, William spent two days volunteering at Centrepoint, helping clients to check in and out of accommodation and answering the phone. It was after this that he agreed to become patron. Lawton says that his commitment and enthusiasm on the front line impressed the staff. “One experienced member of staff said to me ‘I wish all our agency staff were as good as him and all our volunteers got stuck in like he did’.”
Given the schedules of the royal family it is not always possible for them to spend time with a charity before agreeing to become involved, so a charity will write to the private secretary of the royal concerned and request their involvement. This is what Barnardo’s did to ask Princess Diana to become its president in 1984 after Princess Margaret stepped down after 40 years.
In its crudest sense, the main purpose of having such a figurehead is to put hands in pockets and bums on seats. In the few weeks that Prince William has been patron of Centrepoint, the charity has received donations from people who have been inspired by his actions. People are also more likely to attend a charity’s event if they know a member of the royal family will be there, will pay more for tickets and, once there, are more likely to give money to the charity’s cause.
Maria Pedro, the NSPCC’s celebrity manager, says a charity’s income goes hand in hand with its profile. “When our profile goes up so does our income because our patrons are in the public eyes,” she says. “It raises awareness and more people want to donate to us.”
The appearance of a high-profile patron can also have a significant effect on the charity’s clients. Lawton says the people who met Prince William were “delighted”, as were those who met his mother in the 1990s. “It helped young people with their self-respect if a person like Diana had time for them and listened to them.”
This point is echoed by Roger Singleton, chief executive of Barnardo’s, who says it is difficult to express the value a family feels when they speak to a public figure about their experiences. “They don’t expect all their problems to be solved but they do enjoy the opportunity to talk to the person privately and informally.”
Just how involved a royal patron becomes in a charity depends on their schedule and public duties. The Queen is patron or president of more than 700 organisations (see below) and it is unrealistic to expect her to attend every fundraising event. So, given the limits on royals’ time, some charities have a celebrity patron or ambassador instead of or as well as a royal. The NSPCC has the Queen, but also Kylie Minogue, Jonny Wilkinson and, most recently, Catherine Zeta Jones. Breast Cancer Care has the Duchess of Kent, but also Cherie Booth and Geri Halliwell.
Christina McGill, Breast Cancer Care’s head of communications, is responsible for liaising with the patrons, and says it pays to have both a royal and a celebrity on board: “Having a variety of celebrity patrons that fit in with the charity is very helpful but having a royal endorsement lends something to the charity overall.” Her charity has regular review meetings with all its celebrity patrons to ensure both sides are happy with the arrangements.
Celebrity involvement in a charity can help it to reach people who would otherwise not be interested. As Pedro says, Kylie Minogue and Jonny Wilkinson “can get in under the radar of young people”. She adds: “We couldn’t go into the marketplace and buy that sort of endorsement, like Pepsi or Gucci do. We couldn’t afford it and what celebrities give us is invaluable.”
Having both types of figureheads also “means you can reach an audience from monarchists to republicans and all shades in between”, says the National Autistic Society’s head of fundraising, David Richards. The Countess of Wessex is its patron and actress Jane Asher has been its president for 13 years. He says: “Both royals and celebrities can add gravitas or just plain glamour to an issue or an event.”
But being the patron of a charity can be a tall order. The individual concerned has to have credibility with the organisation’s client group and cannot be an embarrassment to the charity. As Singleton says: “It has to be someone who is not going to be dragged through the pages of the tabloids tomorrow because of their murky past or because they are on drugs or
money laundering.” They also have to be someone that the corporate companies who give to charities are willing to be identified with.
On a different note, patrons also need to have the skills to know how to thank the charity’s volunteers. This is a key skill, according to Richards, who says a member of the royal family taking the time to share a coffee with a charity’s volunteers can have a big impact. “Is it glamorous? No, but it’s a really effective way of saying thank you to people who do valuable unpaid work for an important cause.”
Yet, while having a royal patron puts a high-profile name on the charity’s notepaper and a photograph in the tabloids, does the involvement of the royal family put some people off a charity? The consensus from the sector is no.
Giles Pegram, the NSPCC’s director of appeals for 25 years, says people from all backgrounds are fascinated by the royal family. “It is remarkable that when people are invited to an event where a member of the royal family is present few refuse to attend.”
So it seems that in capturing Prince William’s time and attention, Centrepoint could be on to a good thing – and Lawton is certainly optimistic when he says: “I have an idea that when I next write to captains of industry I’ll be heard by a few more of them now Prince William is our patron.”
The Queen is patron or president of more than 700 organisations.
The Duke of Edinburgh is patron or president of 800 organisations.
The Prince of Wales is patron or president of 200 organisations.
The Princess Royal is patron or president of more than 200 organisations.