Royal Focus: A true professional

A conversation about the voluntary sector with the Princess Royal is a lot like talking to a well-informed charity chief executive, writes Tania Mason.

Princess Anne has met Sir Bob Geldof only once. But Britain's Most Admired Celebrity Charity Champion - the title was conferred on her by Third Sector last year - could not resist offering her runner-up some advice. "You know that Live Aid money - it would have been nice if you could have put it in a trust to be used only for transport-related issues in Africa, for disaster relief or longer-term development work," she told him. It was a suggestion that, according to the Princess, stopped Geldof in his tracks for a moment. "He'd always highlighted the problems of getting things to places," she says, recalling the meeting. His eventual reply was that the public would never stand for it.

"But he knew what I meant," she continues. "And I know what he meant. But I wish he could have done that. Transport remains a problem for everyone delivering aid in Africa because it's always low on the list. It's not an attractive proposition."

As patron of transport charity Transaid, the Princess knows this only too well. But then she knows only too well the particular problems and challenges facing a host of charities, as the president, patron or a member of more than 200.

Her involvement is anything but tokenistic, as several charity chiefs testified when she was voted Celebrity Charity Champion. The unanimous verdict was that she is a proper working princess, who rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck in, whether giving a speech to a glitzy dinner in Mayfair or visiting an outreach centre for troubled youths in Jamaica. As Save the Children director general Mike Aaronson says: "She is equally impressive whether talking to staff, volunteers, young people, government ministers, UN officials or business leaders. She is a role-model for any celebrity wanting to be more than just a figurehead for a good cause: a working president who really adds value."

Third Sector first attempted to secure an interview with the Princess Royal in October last year, as soon as it learned she had won the accolade. One clue as to why she won the award is that her diary was so jammed full of engagements that the earliest date she could give was a good four months later.

By the time we meet, the conditions have been outlined. The Princess, I am told in advance, "doesn't do personal questions". I am not allowed to ask her what the highlights have been in her years of charity work, what has made her laugh or cry, or if there is anything she still really yearns to do in her life. I'm not even allowed to ask what drives her to work as hard as she does. "And keep it non-specific," I am advised by her private secretary, Nick Wright. "Otherwise it will be a very short interview."

A mix-up at her end means nobody has told the Princess a photographer is attending. "No, she's been told it is a one-on-one with you - and that's what it will be," Wright tells me. The photographer is sent packing.

By this stage, a picture is forming of a woman who, if not a complete tyrant, is at least not particularly accommodating. This impression isn't helped by the nervous manner of her staff. So when I am finally beckoned into her suite and find myself shaking the hand of a normal-looking, normal-sounding human being, I am quite relieved.

The Princess wedges herself into an armchair while I am invited to settle on a sofa opposite. Between us, on the floor, is a huge, furry grey animal skin, head still attached, with teeth bared. Just behind me sits Wright, there to ensure I don't get too specific, no doubt.

The small talk you usually make at the beginning of an interview doesn't come so easily with royalty. "Nice office" or "great area of town to work in" doesn't cut much ice at the Palace. But she must know that, which is why she takes the initiative and fires off a question about the title of this magazine.

"Why Third Sector? It's like 'Third World'. It struck me as rather strange. What are the other two?" Told that the others are the public and the private sectors, and that the third sector is another term for the voluntary sector, she retorts: "Yes, well, those waters are rather muddied now - the definition of a volunteer and what many charities actually do."

It is the first of a string of opinions that demonstrate her intimacy with the charity world. For someone who has never heard the term 'third sector', the Princess is totally conversant with the issues facing a modern voluntary sector. Among other subjects, she treats me to her views on the tricky relationship between service-delivery charities and government, educating the public about the costs of fundraising, charity league tables, public altruism, duplication of services, her time as a Brownie, the history of Save the Children, the importance of strong bureaucracies in volunteer organisations and Bill Gates. It soon becomes evident that her grasp of each subject is no less than what you would expect of a charity executive.

The day before I meet her, Bill Gates pledged another $750m (£400m) to the GAVI child vaccination programme in Africa. The Princess says she bets he didn't realise how difficult it would be when he gave the first tranche of money: "He didn't understand the problems involved - now he does." She suspects he probably assumed that money and technology could solve any problem.

"Money doesn't solve problems," she says. "As a lot of governments have noticed, unless you have the structure, the transport, somewhere to deliver the aid to - and can go on doing so - the chances are you won't succeed. It's not a one-shot wonder - you don't just crack it and then go home."

The Princess refuses to explain why she devotes so much of her time to charity. Even the question I have been advised by Wright to ask - "How did you first get into charity work?" - she answers with a question of her own: "How do you define charity work?" She eventually answers the query with a homily about her membership of the Brownies as a child, when she knitted squares to be made into a blanket for Save the Children, although she only remembered their destination years later: "All that background is important, I think, in the way in which you felt that that was the natural thing to do when given the opportunity to make an effort."

She adds that her family's involvement with charity is "very much an accepted part of the expectancy of service". She says her father always advised his children that they should choose something they had a specific interest in or felt they could contribute to.

"Oddly enough, that wouldn't apply to Save the Children, which I knew precious little about as an organisation," she adds. "The Riding for the Disabled Association was perhaps the more logical one; although I knew little about disabilities in general, you felt there was something in my knowledge of horses and riding that might be useful."

The Princess's speech to the International Financing Review dinner in London on 10 January, made in her capacity as president of Save the Children, gave an insight into why her support is so coveted. Although the dinner took place just two weeks after the Boxing Day tsunami, she used her after-dinner address to remind those attending - most of whom were from big investment banks - that there were plenty of other forgotten emergencies around the world.

"I used the opportunity to make the point that they understand the value of long-term investment, which is what our work is," the Princess says. "Having to stop programmes just because there's been a natural disaster would be unthinkable."

It was a canny comment that few people would have had the audacity to make so soon after such a catastrophe, let alone the stature to carry off.

Although the Princess won't directly answer the most pertinent questions, her long discourses provide plenty of lines to read between. And although she might have fallen into the world of charity some 30 years ago through a sense of duty, I suspect it soon became a labour of love. She is devoted to the third sector, spellbound as much by its unique and bizarre idiosyncrasies as by the knowledge that she makes a real difference to people's lives. And the rich tapestry that is the voluntary sector is all the richer for this relationship with the Princess.

PRINCESS ANNE ON... VOLUNTEERING

"If you're going to give volunteers the opportunity to do what they're good at, you need strong management, a competent bureaucracy. Some volunteers never really see the point of that, but it makes a real difference."

Contracting with government

"The challenge of working with government is considerable. Part of it is remaining sufficiently independent, I think. If you're worthy of going into a partnership with government, it means you have got a track record and you have been successful, and presumably you've done that with your own funds and your own decision-making process. But all bureaucracies will want to tidy you up under a heading, and that means tidying up your subject matter too, and how you're going to spend the funds."

Whether service-delivery charities can still challenge government

"Probably - but they need to have enough independence that they can afford to lose that contract. Even some UK charities underestimate the impact of service delivery on behalf of government agencies and what they do to them in the long run in terms of tying their hands."

Whether the UK is a charitable nation

"The response since Boxing Day as a result of that extraordinary natural disaster would indicate that we are a charitable nation. If we can keep up the charitable giving that we might have expected in an average year, then that is a considerable achievement."

The 'tsunami effect' on other causes

"I think there is a danger that a number of charities that are involved in service delivery are going to find it very hard because people's perspectives on need change, and that could be quite a struggle for many this year."

The need to convince the public of the realities of fundraising

"It's hard work fundraising all the time, but if you're fundraising successfully you've got to explain to yourself and everyone else what it is that you're doing, and in some ways that's no bad discipline to have."

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