Peter Stanford: Pick patrons to benefit the charity - not the celebrity

Beware of patrons who would rather be trustees, warns our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Once a year it came up on the trustees' agenda: "Patrons: who, and what to do with them." What usually prompted the item were calls from two very persistent patrons, one of whom contacted the office regularly to ask, in a helpful way, if there was anything we wanted them to do, and another who posed much the same question, but with rather more of an air of obligation. Our role was to find something to occupy them, the subtext being that "otherwise this whole patron business is a charade".

Perhaps that is the question we should have been debating round the trustee table. There has, after all, been such a sea change in the use of patrons in the third sector in recent times. It sounds amateurish, but there was a time not so long ago when even the biggest charities didn't have celebrities attached to the fundraising and media teams.

I remember being asked by a charity I was involved with to mediate in a dispute over how to attract big-name endorsements. One group within the organisation was lobbying to take on a celebrity coordinator, arguing that no self-respecting charity could be without one in an increasingly competitive, celebrity-obsessed age.

Another (who just happened to be older and given to talking idealistically about the work speaking for itself)was adamantly opposed. My heart told me to side with them, but my head dictated the opposite.

If, for the sake of argument, we accept celebrity patrons as a fact of life, what are the pitfalls trustees should be on the lookout for in judging the performance of their celebrities? For starters, beware the patrons who would rather be trustees. There are two different roles here.

The trustee's task is to work, often unheralded, with the management team to ensure good governance, protect the charity's good name and hold it true to its trust deed and ideals.

Patrons are there to promote the cause. Once you start blurring the divide between the two, you get patrons who demand that any money their public profile raises is used for a particular pet project. If we've got the money to do that, the argument goes, let's move it up our list of priorities, even if it isn't the first thing we think we ought to be doing. It is so tempting, but so dangerous.

Then there is the danger of talking down to your supporters. I organise an annual lecture on prison reform. It is a subject many would rather not think about - an intractable issue where logic and the public appetite for punishment don't always line up.

So there is always a temptation to rope in a 'national treasure' type of speaker, someone with a good heart who might once have expressed a passing interest in the subject of prison reform, but who has no depth of knowledge. No problem, that same beguiling voice whispers in my ear. We have the expertise, they have the celebrity. We can tell them what to say and they will draw the crowds.

But it is a flawed strategy that underestimates the audience. They want depth of analysis. The sprinkling of stardust very quickly wears thin.

Finally, there are the whims of fashion. The hardest dilemma I always face with patrons is what to do with those whose name, once so potent with the public, has faded.

It feels so ungrateful simply to discard them when their face is no longer a crowd-puller, but equally there is nothing more off-putting than a celebrity event studded with yesterday's heroes. Your first instinct is to think "I wonder what they are doing now", rather than listen to the appeal they are making.

It is a tough business. Out-of-work former soap stars often have plenty of time on their hands to help out. And who knows, one day they might land a role that propels them back into the forefront of the public consciousness. So why not just hold on to them? But that way the list of patrons gets longer and longer, and less compelling.

It may sound like passing the buck, but the best strategy for trustees is to challenge the fundraisers, media team and marketing department to take a long, hard look at the patron list and make some hard-hearted recommendations to the board, based not on sentiment, friendship or gratitude for past good deeds, but on what is best for the charity.

For that, in this as in all things, must be our byword. Once we start putting individuals' feelings above the cause, we've lost our compass.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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