Help for Heroes: The bright idea that hit the spot

In three short years, Help for Heroes has gone from the overnight brainchild of a married couple to one of the biggest fundraising success stories in the country. Alex Blyth charts its rapid ascent

Help for Heroes
Help for Heroes

On 4 June, Prince William opened a new swimming pool, two gyms and a research centre at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, Surrey.

The £8m complex will help seriously wounded servicemen and women who are, in many cases, literally trying to get back on their feet. It is also the latest visible result of the work of Help for Heroes, a forces charity that only three years ago was no more than an idea being discussed by its founders, husband and wife Bryn and Emma Parry.

The initial goal was to raise enough money to provide a swimming pool for Headley Court, but the charity has already gone vastly beyond that target. Help for Heroes has, in a remarkably short time, gone from an idea to one of the most widely recognised fundraising machines in the UK.

The charity has raised £53m so far. It has held a handful of large, headline-grabbing events: one, a rugby match featuring stars such as Lawrence Dallaglio, raised £1.44m; another, a charity ball that offered guests the chance to fly with the Red Arrows, raised £1.6m. But the vast majority of Help for Heroes' funds have come from thousands of smaller, community-based events.

"There are now about 50 events a week up and down the country," says Bryn Parry. "Some people run for charity, others organise pub quizzes and a few grow moustaches. In our first few weeks, a cake sale made £5,500. All these small events come together to make a big difference."

The charity has been able to pass all of these funds on to the cause for which they were intended. It has cut its costs by seeking out donations of equipment and services. Its office cost £1 for the first year. Its furniture was donated. Its first 500,000 leaflets were printed for free. It pays for its 25 full-time staff with revenue generated by its trading arm, a 25-person company that sells merchandise such as teddy bears and T-shirts.

Right from the start, Help for Heroes has focused solely on fundraising and has established strategic partnerships to allocate the funds.

These have included Troop Aid, which provides support packs for the soldiers' first few days in hospital; the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which provides a house at Selly Oak Hospital for relatives of the wounded; Battle Back, which provides sporting and adventure training activities at Headley Court; and Combat Stress, a charity that looks after those diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We have never intended to take money away from existing forces charities, and indeed we have not done so - their incomes have increased in the past three years," says Bryn Parry. "We think of ourselves as the current account that can add to the long-term savings accounts of those delivery charities."

- July 2007

Bryn Parry, a former soldier in the Royal Green Jackets, cycles to Paris in aid of a friend with a brain tumour. At a barbecue that weekend, he and his wife Emma meet the general in charge of providing care for wounded soldiers. The conversation they have strikes a chord with the Parrys, whose son is due to join the army that September; by the next morning they have come up with the idea for Help for Heroes.

- September 2007

Parry meets General Sir Richard Dannatt. They agree that the initial objective should be to raise enough for a swimming pool at Headley Court.

- October 2007

The charity is launched and The Sun begins its wristband campaign. Princes William and Harry both wear the tricoloured wristbands in public.

- December 2007

The Sunday Times nominates the charity as the beneficiary of its Christmas appeal, raising more than £600,000.

- May 2008

A Help for Heroes bike ride through First and Second World War battle sites raises £1m.

- September 2008

The Heroes Ball raises £1.6m and the rugby challenge match nets £1.44m.

- October 2008

The X Factor finalists release the single Hero in aid of the charity and the annual Poppy Appeal. The government waives VAT on the single.

- November 2009

The Heroes Cup football match, featuring stars such as Paul Gascoigne and Angus Deayton, takes place in Reading.

- June 2010

HRH Prince William opens the £8m complex at Headley Court.

Seven secrets of success

The factors behind the achievements of Help for Heroes

1. It has a simple message

Lee Jackson, a consultant at creative communications agency The Team, says: "The most successful charities are the ones that have such a powerful brand that the question for potential supporters is 'why shouldn't I pledge my support?' rather than 'why should I?' Help for Heroes is a fantastic example of this because it has an emotionally charged, easily understood, populist mission that appeals to a broad range of society."

2. It has embraced the internet

It has a website where people can see exactly how it raises its funds and then, crucially, how it spends them. The trading company sells products online, and right from the start the charity has been an avid user of social media, succeeding in building a community of supporters.

3. It has empowered people

Mike Colling, managing director of charity media agency Mike Colling & Co, says: "Help for Heroes has brought back old-fashioned community fundraising. People give to people, and Help for Heroes has tapped into this by empowering supporters to organise their own events, to ask their own friends to attend and to ask them directly for money. It's their mates asking, not a faceless organisation, so it's not surprising that people dig deep."

4. It has reached out through the media

Many charities understand the importance of using the media to raise public awareness and many of them are highly sophisticated at doing so. But Help for Heroes has taken an innovative approach. As Jackson at The Team explains: "Many charities tend to focus their fundraising activities on the quality and mid-market publications, such as The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. But Help for Heroes has been able to find the holy grail by building its brand profile and generating income by concentrating its activities on where the biggest audiences are. Exposure in The Sun and on The X Factor was absolutely pivotal to its success."

5. It has had celebrity support from the start

The use of celebrities is nothing new, but Help for Heroes has had them almost queuing up to be involved, and this has undoubtedly helped the charity achieve its success. It was especially important that in the early days it had the public support of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and former army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt.

6. It seized the moment

There is much that other charities can learn from the Help for Heroes story, but it is also worth bearing in mind that even its founder puts much of its success down to good timing. "During the summer of 2007 there was this enormous pent-up anger at the war and the scenes of our boys coming home with their legs blown off," says Parry. "People wanted to do something and we just provided them with a channel."

7. It has maintained its original focus and passion

Its founders had personal reasons for wanting to help wounded soldiers. They were clear right from the outset that they were not taking political sides and were not there to comment on the rights and wrongs of the wars those soldiers fought. They were there simply to help young men who needed it. "My son fought in the army all last summer," says Parry. "He lost friends and knew many others who were wounded. I'm determined to keep working on this, to keep raising funds, to keep helping these blokes, these heroes."

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