Case study: How the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal has adapted to the coronavirus crisis

The Poppy Appeal has been running since 1921 and is a cornerstone of the legion’s income. Rebecca Cooney finds out how the charity plans to tackle its 2020 appeal

D-Day veteran and Poppy Appeal ambassador Bill Taylor
D-Day veteran and Poppy Appeal ambassador Bill Taylor

The Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal is arguably one of the best-known charity appeals in the UK. 

Every November, a flood of volunteers descends on public places selling paper poppies and other poppy emblems, designed to encourage people to remember those who died in combat, and to raise money to support those who survived. 

In 2018, the Poppy Appeal raised a record £55m, distributing 40 million poppies, seven million pin badges and running about 500 community events. The appeal, which concludes on Armistice Day on 11 November, accounted for just under a third of the charity’s £176m income that year. (The Royal British Legion's reporting year runs from 1 October, so 2018 is the most recent year for which figures are available). 

But despite the success of the 99-year-old campaign, this year it is at risk of being scuppered by social distancing restrictions.

It relies heavily on passing trade in public spaces such as railway stations and shopping centres, many of which are experiencing a dramatic drop in footfall as people work and shop more from home.

And many of the 40,000 people who volunteer for the appeal are vulnerable to Covid-19 – many are elderly veterans who are at a higher risk of death if they catch the virus. On top of this, many public remembrance events and parades are likely to be cancelled or have attendance severely limited by social distancing rules.

At the same time, like many charities, the strain of lockdown and the crisis has driven an increase in demand for the legion's services.

Claire Rowcliffe, director of fundraising at the Royal British Legion, says: “While the Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly makes running the appeal more difficult, the additional hardships it has brought about mean our work is now more vital than ever. 

“The pandemic has had a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods and way of life, leaving some in the armed forces community in dire need of urgent help and support. 

“We are seeing people struggling to cope with the loss of loved ones, facing homelessness and unemployment, and battling mental health issues.”

With many people unable to donate in the usual way, Rowcliffe says, the charity's ambition this year has been to bring the appeal “right to the hearts of individuals, families and communities across the UK with a variety of ways for people to get involved, whatever their circumstances”. 

The tagline for the appeal, which launches today, is: “Every poppy counts”. 

The paper poppy pins will still be available from major supermarkets – Aldi, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – with volunteers running collections “in other sites and businesses where possible”, the charity says.

It has also invested in offering cashless donation options, including QR codes, text to donate, and contactless devices, to minimise the risk of transmission between donors and collectors. 

While the serving and former service personnel who often volunteer as poppy-sellers may not be out in the same numbers as in previous years, the charity has tried to keep them at the heart of the appeal.

The campaign is illustrated by a series of photographic portraits of some of the legion's volunteers and beneficiaries in their own homes, but still surrounded by the iconic poppies.

The charity says it has worked with its members, staff, volunteers and partners to create a range of ways for people to get a poppy and show their support.

These include encouraging people to order poppies to be delivered by post, which they can use to raise donations from friends and family. It is also offering a downloadable poppy image, which people can print out and display in their windows, on its website, along with the opportunity to make a donation.

In addition, the charity is taking a lead from the virtual fundraising campaigns of this year, such as the 2.6 Challenge and the virtual London Marathon – allowing people to complete fundraising challenges remotely and collect the money online.

Royal British Legion’s park running events normally draw in thousands of participants, so this year it has launched Virtual Poppy Runs, where people can set their own targets for distances they want to walk or run and ask friends and family to sponsor them.

The charity is also offering fundraising packs for people who want to come up with their own challenges, such as baking or knitting. 

Donors will be able to buy poppy-related products from the charity’s online shop, and phone, text and postal donation options will also be available. 

While the legion has not given details of the amount it expects this year’s campaign to raise, it said in a statement that during this appeal, it “is asking the public to support it like never before, because every poppy counts”. 

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