Cultivating awareness

Creating a garden at one of the major flower shows, such as Chelsea, offers an opportunity to raise awareness among a relaxed and affluent group, as well as to garner press and PR coverage. John Plummer reports.

Cancer Research UK's garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show
Cancer Research UK's garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show

The English summer may be wetter than ever, but the weather hasn’t stopped charities taking their campaigns outdoors. While the likes of Greenpeace and Oxfam have been recruiting young people at festivals such as Glastonbury, other organisations have been trying to appeal to a more mature audience at the UK’s major flower shows.

Amnesty International, Cancer Research UK, the Children’s Society and the Charities Aid Foundation had show gardens at Chelsea in May; this month, Centrepoint and Groundwork created gardens at Hampton Court Palace, while the Anthony Nolan Trust and the Prince’s Trust had displays at Tatton Park.

It is easy to see the appeal. The big three shows, which are organised by the Royal Horticultural Society, attract hundreds of thousands of people every year. Visitors tend to be relatively affluent and more receptive to approaches while looking at rhododendrons than they are during their lunch hours at work.

But having a large, convivial audience is one thing: translating this into tangible benefits through clever use of herbaceous borders and water features is another. What’s more, gardens at major events don’t come cheap – the RHS may provide free space for exhibitors of flowers, but the cost of plants and equipment can easily exceed £10,000, so organisations need to think carefully about what they hope to achieve. Charities, large ones in particular, are sometimes fortunate enough to get corporate supporters to cover their costs.

Raising awareness

Cancer Research UK hired leading designer Andy Sturgeon this year, thanks to a donation by a private sponsor. With his help, the charity used Chelsea Flower Show to illustrate its vision that ‘together we will beat cancer’ by creating a garden with the theme of ‘together’. All the elements of the garden were designed to interlock and lead people to a central modern amphitheatre where they could sit. The highlight was a 30m-long sculpture consisting of five strands of interwoven, curved oak ribbons. The garden was one of seven to win a gold medal for design.

Despite the medal, however, the garden was not a money-spinner. For Cancer Research UK, flower shows are about awareness. “Having a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show enables us to communicate our key messages face-to-face with more than 170,000 people who visit the garden,” says a spokeswoman. The charity calculated that its show garden at Chelsea in 2006 was featured 14 times on national TV and 20 times in national newspapers. It generated an advertising value equivalent to more than £3m.

Ruth Carter, fundraising manager for north-west England at the Anthony Nolan Trust, has organised her charity’s involvement at Tatton Park for six years. She is the charity’s only paid employee working on the event, but she is helped by 80 volunteers. Costs are covered by Cheshire Building Society, which provides £6,500. Collections at the show yield another £5,000. There is no hard sell or face-to-face recruitment.

“I think the RHS would frown upon us if we were too full-on,” says Carter. “It’s very genteel. We do make a profit, but it certainly doesn’t justify the time and effort. The build-up starts 15 days before, then we are there for the five days of the show and finish three days after it ends.”

It is, she says, purely about awareness. This year, the trust distributed 10,000 leaflets at Tatton and was filmed by BBC TV crews, as well as being seen by 80,000 visitors.

A charity with an affinity for flower shows is Perennial, the gardeners’ royal benevolent society. “For as long as I have been going to flower shows, there have been charity gardens, but there seems to be more now,” says PR officer Nerissa Deeks.

She advises charities to think laterally about their designs. “You do need to think of a link for the garden to make sense,” she says. “A medical charity could use healing plants. Or it may be about relaxation, or something more abstract.”

Lynn Beddoe, head of press and PR at the RHS, which is itself a charity, says voluntary organisations should not worry about being clever, because most visitors will find out about what they do through the show catalogue or from literature handed out at each garden.

Does she expect to see the link between charities and the shows bloom further? “Yes, and not only at flower shows but at all gardening-related events,” she says. “Gardeners are generous, friendly people and it’s a huge community.” Even with summers like this? “People who like gardening don’t mind a bit of rain,” she says.

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