Anyone who watched on TV, or indeed visited, the Queen’s Patrons’ Lunch yesterday could not have been failed to have been moved by the occasion.
The event, held on The Mall, London, as part of the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations, brought together more than 600 charities for whom Her Majesty is patron. A total of 10,000 guests braved the inclement British weather to attend what was, arguably, the biggest public celebration in recent years of the contribution charities make to UK society.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of National Council for Voluntary Organisations and chair of the Patron’s Fund, which will distribute any proceeds raised from the lunch, did a sterling job delivering a speech about the importance of UK charities in front of a global TV audience. The event also offered a platform for less well-known charities such as the Sailors’ Society to raise their profile by speaking to the media about their work.
Various royal correspondents and ex-military types were brought on to speak to the cameras about the dedication of the Queen to her charitable cause over the decades. But no-one, not even the charities themselves, were able to really quantify what difference having the Queen as patron made to a charity's work.
The Queen has been patron of 433 of those 600 charities since 1952, having inherited the patronages from her father the year of her accession to the throne. Most of the charities she supports are UK based and many use the prefix of "royal" - such as the Royal British Legion - but a number reflect her personal interests, such as The Jockey Club.
The "royal" prefix no doubt comes in useful when trying to convince funders of the credibility of your work, but less clear is the difference it makes to the hundreds of other organisations the Queen supports that don’t have an immediate obvious royal connection.
The charities that spoke on TV yesterday talked about how fantastic it was for the Queen to occasionally visit and to have her recognise the work of their volunteers and staff, but there was no talk of how the royal association drives up income or makes the charity more effective.
Not surprisingly, none of the charities offered a platform yesterday said the royal patronage made little or no difference to their cause, although one suspects there must be some among the 600 that draw little from the relationship.
Furthermore, there was little discussion during several hours of TV coverage about how a charity goes about securing a member of the royal family as patron or about how the selection process is made.
Buckingham Palace told the BBC News website that patronages "generally reflect the interests of the member of the royal family involved", adding that, occasionally, a member of the family will hear about a cause "while on a visit, or via one of their other charities, and will decide to support it".
Charities can apply for the Queen to be patron, with her private secretary passing on any requests they think may be of interest, and research is usually then carried out before a decision is made.
But the system all sounds rather subjective and skewed in favour of the usual charity suspects: I doubt a drugs advisory service working mainly with prostitutes would meet royal approval, but I might be mistaken.
Yesterday’s event showed how the Queen and the broader royal family make a significant contribution to the charity sector, but equally it raised some fundamental questions about royal patronages. With the younger royals such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge coming to the fore, perhaps now might be an opportune time to review the process to ensure it is fit for the future and not just reflective of the past.
Andy Hillier is acting editor of Third Sector