Analysis: How Comic Relief and Children in Need raised £70m in six weeks

The Big Night In was the first time the two television fundraising giants had held a joint event. Rebecca Cooney finds out how it came about, what the challenges were and how the money is getting to the front lines

Comic Relief and Children in Need announced today they had already handed out £13m of the £70m raised through the Big Night In, the first live television event jointly organised by both charities, along with the BBC. 

The live event, recorded under lockdown conditions, featured sketches involving Prince William and Stephen Fry, and stars of The Vicar of Dibley, Miranda and Doctor Who.

Donations are still coming in, but the event has so far raised £70m including government match funding, a total made all the more impressive by the fact that the entire event was pulled together in just six weeks.

It often seems to be the case with successful collaborations that those involved are unable to pinpoint where exactly the idea began – or, at least, are graciously unwilling to say. 

This is true of the Big Night In, but althought the details of its inception seem hazy, Simon Antrobus, chief executive of BBC Children in Need, and Ruth Davison, interim chief executive of Comic Relief, agree things really got moving when Davison received an email from Antrobus saying: “So, are we doing this then?”

The BBC Children in Need event and Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day and Sports Relief events normally take the better part of a year to organise. 

There was a moment of hesitation for both organisations, wondering if they could really pull it off, but Davison says with a grin that it probably came too late, after they’d already committed to it.

The challenge was perhaps even bigger for Davison. Work on the Big Night In began just six days after Sport Relief finished and at the same time as Davison stepped up to lead the charity as an interim chief executive, after her predecessor, Alex Reid, left the charity after only 21 days to see out the pandemic with her family in the US.

But Davison says that the decision to take part was an obvious one.“This is why we exist,” she says.

The biggest challenge, she adds, was the pace, given the context of huge uncertainty and distance. She and Antrobus spoke daily and, when they realised that wasn’t enough, set up teams and working groups to work across the two charities. 

Antrobus says the short turnaround might well have given the charity energy, focus and excitement that it wouldn’t have had otherwise, and what ultimately overcame the challenges it posed was a shared ambition to do good during the crisis. 

One of the key decisions to be made about the event was the tone it would strike. As the charity sector stared into a £4.3bn hole in its funding at the same time as demand soared, thanks to the pandemic, the situation looked grim. But as people were furloughed or saw their own incomes drop, there was a lot a concern about whether it was appropriate to ask the public for money.

Striking the right tone, Antrobus says, was the difference between an event that was OK and one that was really special.

“I think we got that right,” he says. “It was about warmth, positivity and recognising that some of the fantastic acts of kindness that have been going on around the country were as important as saying ‘if you can help, then please do’.”

For Davison, the tone was about recognising that “we’re not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm”. 

The government match funding has made a real difference to the success of the event, doubling it in financial terms and dramatically increasing the reach and impact it will have, Antrobus says. And although the government might have attracted criticism elsewhere because of its slow delivery of the £750m support package for the sector, Davison says she believes the offer to match fund was born of a desire to get money to the front line quickly. 

And getting money out of the door to charities and ultimately those people who desperately need it is the task both funders have been engaged with since the Big Night In.

“I think we were both conscious of the need and that every day does count," Davison says. "It’s not just a strapline."

Of the £70m raised, £20m went to the National Emergencies Trust, £4m went NHS Charities Together and the remaining £46m was split equally between BBC Children in Need and Comic Relief. 

Comic Relief’s initial allocations, made in the first week after the live event, went to charities it already knew and where it was clear that there had been a rise in demand, including £2m to women’s aid organisations and £650,000 each to Age UK and the British Red Cross

The funder also moved to make its funding more flexible, allowing grantees to adapt to the crisis, and made additional funds available to existing grantees with additional needs. It now plans to launch a much bigger open call for funding applications in order to offer support to organisations it has not previously worked with. 

Children in Need has similarly offered different funding options. Its emergency essentials scheme has focused on getting money out quickly to where there is immediate need, offering £2m so far in grants of up to £5,000. It also plans to set up a larger open call next week, focusing particularly on issues around mental health, digital isolation and BAME communities. 

Funding for BAME-led and focused organisations is a particular concern for both Comic Relief and Children in Need, because evidence suggests people from BAME communities are more at risk from coronavirus and its wider social impacts. 

The CharitySoWhite campaign has also warned that many BAME charities do not have existing relationships with funders and are therefore less likely to attract support during the crisis. 

At least £650,000 has been allocated to BAME-led organisations so far, with the recipient organisations expected to be announced next week.

The collaboration between the two organisations did not end with the television event. 

Antrobus says: “I feel really optimistic about what we can do together. We’ve been working to make sure our work is complementary for a long period of time, but what this has made us do is think about the collaborations we've talked about but never actually gone into detail about.”

Davison adds that this goes beyond the two charities involved in the Big Night In: options for coordination with other funder and philanthropists are now being explored. This is a conversation that was going on before the crisis, she says, but it has now been accelerated. 

The response to the event was not exactly a surprise, Antrobus says, but it was something special. 

“It relied on a lot of goodwill and people going the extra mile, but to see that we can do something so creative, imaginative and engaging in such a short space of time, and to see the overwhelming kindness of the public in what are pretty tough and dark times, has been refreshing.”

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