OPINION: Are celebs worth the air fare?

As Comic Relief dances joyously into view once more, the whole charity-celebrity dynamic is receiving its biennial burst of energy.

All around the country there will be charity project managers watching the Red Nose jamboree on television and concluding that the only way to get their otherwise media-unfriendly cause publicised is to attach a raft of household names.

It can, of course, work, as Comic Relief demonstrates triumphantly, but as many third-sector organisations go ever further down the road of employing celebrity fixers and paying first-class air fares to get a big name to come and endorse their projects, it's worth thinking about the alternatives.

By chance I was up in north London last week visiting the Chicken Shed Theatre, an open-to-all integrated company that soon will be celebrating its 30th birthday. Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the two inspired individuals who founded this wonderful organisation, have never liked the limelight.

They have preferred to let their able-bodied and disabled performers do the talking for them. Or, failing that, their enthusiastic celebrity backers who include David Puttnam, Pauline Collins and Cherie Booth. But when the reticent Ward and Collins tell the story of how their vision is developing, you know you want to be part of it.

You don't have to be a household name to make people take notice of what you're saying. And you don't have to be one of the recipients of any charity's work - though as I've said here before a good personal story is worth a hundred sound-bites from the stars.

There is a terrible irony here. It is often precisely because of the whole ghastly celebrity culture that inspiring individuals such as Ward and Collins hold back from reaching out to the public. They fear that they will be judged as simply hungry to see their name in lights. But there is a crucial difference between them and the Catherine Zeta-Joneses of this world. The message they convey is more important than them, the medium.

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

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