There were many targets in William Shawcross’s last interview as the outgoing chair of the Charity Commission: large charities, umbrella bodies, lawyers and inefficiency. But the statement that jumped out at me was the view that charities had become too obsessed with "chasing celebrity patrons". This is an interesting statement because I can’t recall any charity chief executive who on a Monday morning would think: "I might be struggling with rising demand, falling income and increased regulation, but on the plus side I’m seeing Bill Oddie on Friday."
In my experience, done well, celebrity champions can make a transformational difference to a charity’s mission and profile.
In the early 2000s, the Scouts decided to recruit a high-profile Chief Scout, our lead volunteer. The movement learned a lot from those early experiences with our original celebrity Chief Scout, Peter Duncan (of Blue Peter fame), and in 2009 appointed an up-and-coming adventurer called Bear Grylls as his successor. Fast forward nine years and Bear’s global reach is over two billion. We now have a team of eleven Scout Ambassadors from all walks of life, all helping to raise the profile of the Scouts.
Why does this matter? It matters because Grylls’ mass appeal has simply communicated the essence of scouting – adventure, values and skills for life – to a huge audience. This becomes even more relevant in a digital age. Grylls has 1.3 million followers on Twitter and 1.7 million on Instagram. This compares favourably with our largest national newspapers – the Daily Mail and The Sun – which have readerships of 1.3 million and 1.4 million respectively.
So it’s no surprise to me that the movement has experienced 13 years of growth during Grylls’ tenure. Our members get a sense of pride knowing that the figurehead of the movement is on prime-time TV eating bugs with Jonathan Ross and bear-chewed salmon with Barack Obama. And each July, Grylls takes off in a helicopter and visits thousands of kids and volunteers around the country to inspire them and to thank our adult volunteers. It’s gold dust.
But finding the right ambassador requires a lot of thought. If the individual doesn’t fit with the mission and values of the organisation, however famous they are, they will jar with your donor base and the public at large. The authenticity of the individual has to align with the integrity of the brand.
It was a given that every one of our ambassadors had to be a role model, in whatever world they happened to work. We also needed our celebrity supporters to be surprising in some way, challenging misconceptions about the Scouts and helping reach non-traditional audiences. Finally, we needed to think about our audience – in scouting, that’s between the age of six and 96. Not every celebrity will appeal to everyone, so having a wide range of relatable and relevant supporters is essential.
But it’s not enough simply to have a list of big names in an annual report. We need to create a brilliant programme too. Steve Backshall and Helen Glover led young people on a wild adventure in the Lake District, and Warwick Davis went on live TV in his Scout scarf in front of 1.2 million people on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Together, these helped get scouting noticed in new places.
Our ambassadors sincerely champion our cause and innovatively engage with our members, through Facebook Live chats as well as at key events. Their motivation is key to that authenticity whether it be wildlife presenter Steve Backshall, whose dad was a cub leader, or Olympic rower Helen Glover, who was the first girl in her Scout troop.
Yes, it’s pretty cool when you meet astronaut Tim Peake – or Bill Oddie – but the reason we engage celebrities is to enhance our mission, communicate our benefits to as wide an audience as possible and positively affect the lives of the people we are there to serve.
Matt Hyde is chief executive of the Scouts