Peter Stanford: The cause should be strong enough without a celebrity

There are times when charities should do without them, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Many words have been spoken and written about the Jimmy Savile scandal, and many more will be. But I hope you will forgive me if I add a few more from the perspective of a trustee who worked for many years in close partnership with the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville - the hospital that, it now turns out, was the scene of some of the disgraced broadcaster's most appalling abuse of vulnerable youngsters.

The hospital managers undoubtedly need to ask themselves some important questions about the unfettered access Savile was afforded. But I'd like to explore a different question: Savile raised millions of pounds for the spinal injuries unit there. Without that money, it would not be the national and international beacon of good practice it now is. Does the Savile connection taint it by association? And - admittedly with the benefit of hindsight - would the hospital have done better to try to raise that money without resorting to the use of a famous face?

Calculated risk

Let's tackle the second question first. Trustees often endorse the use of big names to promote their charities and projects. But there should always be a question in the back of our minds: what if our poster boy of today turns out to be the tabloid ghoul of tomorrow? It is a calculated risk. You are probably safer, for example, hitching your wagon to Delia Smith than to the lead singer of a hell-raising rock band. But we keep on choosing the latter. Why? Because it works: a famous name gets us publicity, opens wallets and gives an appeal momentum.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But I can't help wondering whether Stoke Mandeville could not have raised those millions on the basis of its own merits. Let's be clear here: what goes on at that hospital is wonderful and life-changing and should be celebrated. It has a record that is truly world-beating. We saw it at the Olympics and Paralympics. One of the two mascots was called Mandeville because it was at Stoke Mandeville in the 1940s that Ludwig Guttmann began to promote the whole notion of rehabilitation and reintegration of people with disabilities into society through sport. If you are in any doubt, a very fine play, The Incredible Doctor Guttmann, written by Nicholas McInerny, is doing the rounds of regional theatres. Go and see it.

I would argue that Stoke Mandeville has had and continues to have such a good story to tell in its own right that the danger of any medium or long-term tainting by association with Savile will be slight. It would have been slighter still if it hadn't felt the need in the first place for the sprinkling of stardust that he provided and which has now been revealed as a plague. But that is not the way the world works. Good stories, deserving causes, world-beating centres of excellence are just not sufficient to generate the funds needed to thrive without playing the celebrity game. That is just the way it is.

It is naive, then, to suggest it could be otherwise: but a few pure, unblemished principles might not go amiss amid the current awful revelations. As trustees, charities or donors, perhaps we should try harder to look beyond the messenger to the message. Is it really worthy of our support over and above other calls on our generosity?

Lowest common denominator

As I write this I can see myself, at a meeting on media strategy at a third world development agency, nodding along as we decided that the only way to get the great British public to sit up and take notice of a disaster in a distant land of which we knew little was to persuade Ann Widdecombe to go there and work her magic with the front pages and the bulletins. I didn't argue then that the cause itself was sufficient and that we shouldn't stoop to the lowest common denominator.

But the Jimmy Savile scandal feels like a wake-up call. Let's be pragmatic: the world is not going to change overnight so that we will all simply walk on by if Cheryl Cole appears in our high streets shaking a collecting tin. But that does not mean trustees cannot question whether it is always necessary to buttress a deserving cause with someone off the telly. Nine times out of 10, the answer might be yes. But even if we only draw back 10 per cent of the time, it will be a step in the right direction as far as I'm concerned. Let's show a bit more faith in our donors - and in our causes.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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