Every year, top ICT executives sleep on the streets of London for a night to raise money for NCH. Gary Flood, seen in the pictures, asks what other charities can learn from the success of Byte Night and samples this year's event for himself.
Last week, hundreds of some of the best-paid people in the UK ICT industry abandoned their beds for a night and slept rough by the river Thames. They had been moved enough by the cause of youth homelessness to share, for a few hours, what too many young people experience every night. This was one of the UK's most intriguing participatory charity events, Byte Night.
The event began in 1998 when technology PR consultant Ken Deeks saw an NCH poster on the train calling for an end to youth homelessness by the Year 2000. He made a mental connection between that deadline and another one then exercising the ICT industry, that of the Millennium Bug. Remember the Y2K hype?
"I saw the similarities between NCH's aim of ending youth homelessness by the year 2000 and the ICT community's deadline of ensuring all systems were Y2K compliant," he says. "I had a bunch of clients making money addressing that issue - good money. I thought I could act as a conduit so at least some of that money could go back to the community and do some good."
The first event was graced by 30 sleepers - then, as now, mainly UK ICT industry professionals. They slept out in Finsbury Circus in the City of London, raising about £30,000 from sponsorship and personal donations. Over the years the event has raised £1.2m, with Byte Night 2005 expected to contribute a further £250,000.
Since 2002, NCH has worked to increase the fundraising potential by recruiting more sleepers, increasing fundraising targets for those taking part (in 2005 this is £2,000 per head) and giving participants support and ideas to reach the sponsorship targets. Because of growing sleeper numbers, NCH started using another venue two years ago - Potter's Fields in Southwark.
Deeks's idea might not have got off the ground were it not for the backing of his employer of the time, Kaizo, and the foresight of charity itself. "If NCH hadn't made it easy for me, and wanted to make this work, I'd probably have switched off," he says. "Instead, the people there said 'fabulous, come in tomorrow, this is great'."
It is easy to forget that Deeks wasn't starting from a position of strength: in 1998, corporate social responsibility was definitely not high on the agenda for UK ICT companies. "Apart from spectacular donations by people such as Bill Gates, the technology sector is still behind more established industries such as energy, financial services or telecommunications when it comes to be seen as doing anything for the rest of society," says James Bennet, director in the technology, communications and entertainment group at consultancy Ernst & Young.
In fact, at the first Byte Night, half of the £30,000 raised came from just one individual - Bill Bottriell, of ICT recruitment consultancy Sthree. Now in its seventh year, the event has become a much more successful cash generator, pulling off a real coup: it has become a focus for the somewhat limited charitable tendencies of the UK ICT sector. "The commitment of so many dedicated people has resulted in Byte Night becoming one of NCH's main fundraising endeavours," says Clare Tickell, chief executive at NCH.
The event now provides NCH with a dependable income stream. "It is unique because it is a year-on-year, guaranteed, sustainable income stream," says Sally Swann, senior fundraising executive at NCH. "Most corporate clients will only support their charity of the year."
It takes one full-time person and one other person one day a week over a full year to look after the NCH end of Byte Night. It also requires co-ordination with NCH's events, celebrity and PR teams. "It isn't a nightmare, but it is a big project," says Swann.
She adds that it has also helped to expand the NCH brand, allowing it to approach corporate fundraising partners it might not otherwise have had any connection with, notably the UK arms of some of the world's largest ICT and software firms.
It is a success story most charities would like to replicate. So what lessons could other charities learn from the NCH Byte Night experience? "It shows that it's better to concentrate on the main decision-makers at the tops of companies, not the CSR managers - they'll follow the agenda set by their managing directors," says Ernst & Young's Bennet. "Those are the people to build relationships with if you can."
Jonathan Andrews, corporate partnership account director at Age Concern, agrees. "By concentrating on getting the most well-known senior players in an industry together, it is now on the radar of huge firms such as Microsoft," he says. "People like coming along because it's a good networking event - all the heavy hitters are in one place."
Byte Night's strong branding and focus are very important to its success, and having an annual event also provides a good reference point for the industry, adds Andrews. "Though the event isn't asking that much - one night of effort - it's one night that can so easily be sponsored," he says. "There's also a good website and strong support material to help, and NCH does well on celebrity support for the night. No matter how much hard work it is for NCH, it's got to be worth it."
All in all, then, it's a great example of successful charity marketing. But never far from the minds of Deeks and other Byte Night leaders, let alone the participants, is what the event is there to achieve - help for some of the most vulnerable members of society.
According to NCH research, young people leaving care are 60 times more likely to be homeless than other young people, and it's estimated that 20 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds will experience homelessness at some point in their lives - and that a third of all young homeless people attempt suicide.
Money from Byte Night goes straight to NCH's 55 leaving care and homelessness projects across the UK. Each individual sleeper can stumble back to their warm, safe home the next day, knowing that £5 raised can pay for emergency overnight support for a young person living on the street, £250 could pay for emergency overnight accommodation for up to ten vulnerable young people and £1,000 will buy basic furnishings and equipment for a young person who is setting up home for the first time.
"Even now, seven years on, I still feel very emotional about some of the things I hear," says Deeks. "I've met some kids whose stories break your heart, such as the girl thrown out of her house when she was nine because her mother said she was too pretty. This is a great event, but sleeping out for one night is just symbolic compared with the suffering of too many children out there."
This is why, next September, another bunch of well-paid people will ditch their City suits in favour of woolly hats and sleeping bags to spend a cold and uncomfortable night on the streets. And it's all thanks to the impact one poster made on one ICT PR man.
GARY FLOOD'S BYTE NIGHT DIARY
7pm: I arrive at the site, Potter's Fields, just by Tower Bridge. The Thames looks lovely with the City lights starting to twinkle in the dusk. Like most of the 200 sleepers taking part tonight, I have come with sleeping bag and waterproofs and some trepidation about the forecast.
9pm: After a couple of hours of presentations, a free hot meal and a chance to get to know fellow sleepers, we leave Ernst & Young's corporate HQ for the main Byte Night tent. Although most fundraising takes place on an individual basis, extra income is generated from corporate sponsorship of various events such as charity auctions on the night. This year, these activities made £14,000 in an hour, including £500 raised when actress and NCH figurehead Jenny Agutter ate an entire chilli in the name of charity.
12pm: We've had a couple of hours of entertainment, with a quiz, auction and cash bar (all drinks include a donation to the charity). The bar is now shut and it's time to get into the sleeping bag. But while we've been in the tent it's got decidedly chilly outside. Fully clothed, in my sleeping bag, inside my survival bag and with my hat on, I still feel less than comfortable. After some chat, it's time to try to sleep.
3am: Woken by the cold, I stagger to the portable loos. How do people sleep like this without as much protection as we have? I can see the grim appeal of alcohol.
5am: I am woken by an ice-cold breeze off the river to find that my protective umbrella has blown away.
7am: The night is over and we are cold, tired and totally relieved. The hosts provide tea and croissants, never more welcome. It is very hard to pack my sleeping bag because my hands are blocks of ice. But what an event - everyone leaves wishing each other luck and there's a real sense of achievement. Roll on Byte Night 2006.
WHY I'M AT BYTE NIGHT
'Events like this remind you that money really isn't everything, but the power of money can be useful in helping vulnerable people'
Tim Campbell, winner of BBC reality show The Apprentice
'I was homeless myself once, 15 years ago. Fortunately, I was educated enough about where to get help, but most of these kids aren't. We have a moral obligation to help, especially as one of our big themes as a company is education'
Jane Lewis, network academy programme manager, Cisco UK
'Working in London, we all see the effects of homelessness on a daily basis. Now I know more, I'm a passionate supporter - it's such an important collective effort by the ICT industry to make a huge difference to the lives of children and young people'
Kath Pooley, general manager, high-tech PR firm Lewis.