Newsmaker: Barking up the right tree

Russ Kane, chief barker at the Variety Club, believes celebrity charity messages should have relevance and poignancy.

Russ Kane
Russ Kane

Cynics might question the motivation of celebrities who jump on the latest good cause bandwagons, but Russ Kane, chief barker of children's charity the Variety Club, believes the right famous name can make the difference between failure and success for charity fundraising events.

"When we launched the 2007 Gold Heart appeal at Harrods in February, we got Girls Aloud to front it," he says. "It caused an absolute roadblock in Knightsbridge - there were about 200 paparazzi outside and it made virtually all the newspapers.

"If you've got an act such as Girls Aloud - who are very photogenic, popular and successful - that's how you'll get a lot of notice."

However, charities should not, Kane advises, be tempted to think that any celebrity will do. "I don't believe in celebrity for celebrity's sake," he says. "The message has to have a relevance and a poignancy."

Not all charities can rely on A-list or even C-list support to act as a draw for their events. But the Variety Club, which was established in the UK in 1949 by two senior film industry figures to support sick, disabled and disadvantaged children, has always had strong links with the world of entertainment.

The title of chief barker and the terminology the charity uses come from the circus - a circus barker would persuade people to enter the circus and enjoy its attractions. As with all key management positions at the charity, the position is voluntary.

Chief barkers have often come from backgrounds in entertainment. Kane was a minor celebrity himself as the Flying Eye on London's Capital Radio, where he gave traffic reports from a helicopter above the city.

"We use contacts to approach celebrities because the personal approach always works," he says. "If a celebrity gets a call from someone they have never heard of, the caller won't get past the first personal assistant."

Kane says he was approached to be the chief barker at least twice before taking on the role. It is a year-long commitment for which you have to be invited - you cannot apply for it.

"I said no originally because of the time commitment," he says. "But I thought it would be rude to turn it down a third time."

Kane, who is also chief executive of marketing consultancy Russell-Alexander Associates, has had a varied career. This is his first full-time role in the sector, but he is keen to emphasise his charity credentials.

"I've done a lot of charity work," he says. "Are you going to put that in your article? I don't want people to think I do only the Variety Club.

"I'm also closely associated with the Rhys Daniels Trust, which supports children with life-threatening illnesses, the Royal Marsden Hospital and Breast Cancer Care."

Kane describes himself as a perfectionist, but says he is not dissatisfied when he looks back over his year as chief barker.

"I hope I have left the Variety Club feeling more like a cohesive unit and better placed to face the increasingly complex world of charity," he says.

"When you're up against the likes of Children in Need or Red Nose Day, it's hard to get heard. But you have to find ways of sneaking through."

Kane has overseen a restructuring of the fundraising department and a change in its approach, but is reluctant to go into details because, he says, "that would be giving other charities a blueprint to follow".

Kane says the past 12 months have gone by "in the blink of an eye". He will have to wait four years before he can be asked to be chief barker again. "But I will always be involved with the Variety Club," he vows. "The work it does is magnificent."

Kane CV

2007: Chief barker, the Variety Club
2006: Consultant to the commercial directorate, Department of Health
2002: Wins the celebrity edition of The Weakest Link
1984-2004: Flying Eye traffic reporter, Capital Radio.

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