Samir Patel: 'We can’t just talk to people on Red Nose Day'

The new chief executive of Comic Relief on diversifying operations and the power of digital

 Samir Patel. Photo: Colin Stout
Samir Patel. Photo: Colin Stout

For someone who founded their career on the power of digital strategy, Samir Patel has next to no online footprint.

There is a LinkedIn profile that charts his job moves from the time of the dotcom boom to his appointment as chief executive of Comic Relief earlier this year.

There are a handful of articles that mention his campaigning and communications work – but nothing that reveals any detail about who he is as a person. And there is certainly no Twitter account.

“It’s a conscious choice,” Patel says. “When your career is all about digital you don’t necessarily need to dabble it into any other aspects of your life. But I think in this role that’s more likely to change.”

A dual US/UK citizen, Patel spent his childhood in Atlanta and adult life in New York, before moving to the UK about a decade ago. He now lives in London with his wife and two children, who are three and seven months old.

He stepped into the top role at Comic Relief in March, having spent the previous eight years as chief innovation strategist at the creative and digital agency Blue State.

The organisation made its name working on the US presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, which used the internet to mobilise a vast grassroots movement of 10 million supporters and raised more than $500m, primarily from small donors.

“At Blue State I really learned about advocacy and community organising. My career has always been digital, but it took it to another level of understanding on how you use digital to engage people and grow movements,” he says.

During his time with the agency Patel worked with charities Oxfam, UNCHR and Amnesty International, among other charities, but his clients also included Google, Lloyds Bank and the Co-op.

The work left him well-versed in providing solutions before walking away, he says, but he was interested in moving in-house, to see change through and become part of something long-term.

“The role at Comic Relief interested me because I was only going to do something cause-led. The more I dug into what has been happening at the organisation lately, the more interesting it got,” he says.

“I appreciated the openness with which it had been going through a transition in the ways some of its storytelling was being done, and its funding work is very progressive and interesting – Comic Relief was doing things you wouldn’t necessarily guess from the outside.”

Comic timing

Founded in 1985 by the charity worker Jane Tewson and the screenwriter supremo Richard Curtis, Comic Relief (the operating name of Charity Projects) has raised more than £1.4bn for good causes over 35 years.

The charity’s mission is simple: to drive positive change through the power of entertainment, which it primarily achieves through raising funds and awareness.

Its inaugural Red Nose Day telethon, which took place in 1988, was launched along with the first generation of comedy red noses, which would soon become a biennial staple of schools around the country.

In the year ending July 2020, Comic Relief’s total income was reported as more than £78m, with almost 250 full-time members of staff.

Samir Patel CVPatel joined the grant-maker following a particularly tumultuous year.

In March 2020 Alex Reid stepped into the role of chief executive, but her tenure lasted only 21 days before she left to return to the US to be with her family during the Covid-19 pandemic. Interim CEO Ruth Davidson subsequently steered Comic Relief through a period of intense activity, which included an acceleration of its grant-giving to support local organisations, the launch of targeted funds to support BAME-led voluntary sector organisations for the first time, and a partnership with BBC Children in Need to raise £70m for UK charities.

Comic Relief’s challenges during this period now read like a familiar sector story: it reported a deficit of about £27m in its latest accounts, in part due to the acceleration of grant-giving, and the impact of the pandemic led to a restructure that resulted in 42 staff being made redundant.

For Patel, then, his first six months in post at the charity have been about keeping a steady hand on the tiller. “I haven’t wanted to come in and make any big proclamations or talk about the long term,” he says.

Instead, he has been meeting every member of staff (“Not easy when you come into a role remotely”) and establishing short-term priorities to maintain stability in the year ahead.

This includes managing the charity’s return to office-based work, with Comic Relief requesting that its staff visit its headquarters 12 times a year on a flexible schedule.

“We have said that no one has to use those 12 days in 2021, so if no one feels comfortable between now and the end of the year they don’t need to come in,” Patel explains. “We want them to be sure we are being responsible and thinking of those that might be vulnerable or more worried or anxious about coming in.”

But bigger changes are on the horizon, as Comic Relief prepares to refresh its social change strategy in 2022, he says.

“Our change strategy was done three or four years ago and we have learned a lot, so we are now asking what we need to do to raise income over the next five years, building on our fundraising and ultimately our entire model.

“We are an organisation that has very successfully built Red Nose Day. We want to continue that – but how can we do more and have more things growing throughout the year? What does that mean for our organisation, and how can we achieve it?”

Diversifying audiences

At least two Comic Relief mainstays present strategic challenges for the future: its telethon fundraising model, which brings Red Nose Day and Sport Relief to TV, and the storytelling methods it uses in its ads and appeal films.

With the explosive growth of streaming services and on-demand content, people are not sitting down to watch live television together in the same way as they did when Red Nose Day launched in the 1980s and grew in the 90s.

The biennial fundraising event’s results have been on a downward trend since its end-of-night totals hit a peak of £78m in 2015. The 2020 telethon generated an end-of-night total of £52m – down £11m on 2019 – with a further £3m raised in the subsequent days.

Patel is not overly fazed by the decline, however. “We certainly used to raise a lot more, but it is hard to criticise the public giving £55m in a pandemic year when the schools and retailers are closed, and that’s a big part of our fundraising,” he says.

“We have a good sense of cost versus income and feel as though we are in an OK place right now. It’s figuring out how we maintain that going forward.”

While the details of the strategy refresh will not be published until next year, Patel says there are core actions that the charity will be looking at. “We need to diversify our income ranges and diversify the audiences we engage with: finding more ways to engage outside of Red Nose Day.”

And, he says, digital will be the thread that runs through these actions.

“Digital is always-on, rather than a one-time thing or an event. It’s always engaging people, acquiring new supporters, getting a message out and giving people interesting things to engage with,” Patel says.

“The more you are engaging people through digital, the more they are willing to take actions with you: then, if there is an emergency, you have a built-in audience you can reach out to.

“We have to build that foundational side but also need to think about ways to engage people on a larger scale that are not about TV.”

This does not mean an exclusively online approach: for example, Comic Relief is experimenting with gaming and recently hosted a Dungeons & Dragons event that Patel says was very successful.

The charity is also planning a major change to the model of its Sport Relief brand, with a move to an all-year-round format rather than a biennial telethon, while Red Nose Day is set to become an annual event.

Whatever the channel, cultivating ongoing relationships with supporters is crucial. “We can’t just talk to people on Red Nose Day, we have to keep giving them reasons to talk to us, keep working to get people’s attention and give them reasons to care,” Patel says.

“We have to invest in how we engage people, the content we create and the number of times we reach out. It runs through everything.”

Telling the right stories

Evolving the content that Comic Relief creates is a journey the organisation has already begun.

For decades, both Comic Relief and Sport Relief telethons combined comedy and cultural humour with appeal films that typically featured white celebrities visiting “third-world” countries to “tell their stories”: Ricky Gervais meeting people living below the poverty line in Kenya, David Tennant visiting a Ugandan malaria ward, Miranda Hart touring slums in Kampala.

The approach has sparked controversies in recent years for reinforcing stereotypes around white saviourism and poverty porn, amid a broader conversation about how the sector frames the people and communities it works with.

A 2017 Comic Relief appeal film fronted by the musician Ed Sheeran to raise awareness of poverty in Liberia was awarded a parody “Rusty Radiator” award for the most offensive TV campaign of the year; and in 2019 the reporter Stacey Dooley was criticised for perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes”, after she shared pictures of herself carrying a black child, which she captioned “obsessed”, while filming for a Red Nose Day appeal in Uganda.

At the time, Comic Relief committed to moving away from the traditional formats to put an increased focus on local storytellers. “It’s an evolution we will continue to make,” Patel says.

“We’re making a number of initiatives across different projects that are about working with people with lived experience, letting them tell their own stories. But it’s not just storytelling, even on the funding side. It’s letting communities that are closest to the issues define the solutions that they need.”

This work is playing out across multiple disciplines. In September Comic Relief invested more than £1m in projects to end violence against women and girls (VAWG) led by and for Black and minoritised women across the UK.

Every African appeal film for Red Nose Day 2021 was led by local filmmakers; a £10m youth endowment fund that aims to prevent youth violence was fully designed by young people; and in September the charity premiered a series of short animated films directed and produced by the young African directors Comfort Arthur, Gwamaka Mwabuka and Amil Shivji to raise awareness of malaria in Ghana and Tanzania.

“On our funding and impact side we are looking at a new generation of storytellers and culture makers: people that want to use culture to get certain messages out in a way that is entertaining and puts people first. This is our present and our future,” says Patel, who has an MA in filmmaking.

Devil’s advocates might argue that there is no denying the draw a well-known figure such as Sheeran brings to the equation – with the grant-maker itself acknowledging the success of the traditional appeal film formula.

Patel says the organisation will continue to work with white celebrities, just in different ways.

“Our talent relationships are a big asset, but this is about working with talent in different ways. A lot of our celebrities and high-profile talent ambassadors have issues that they care about: so if we can have mutual agendas where we are both trying to create impact, the more it is a mutually beneficial relationship, the better,” he says.

And the need to reframe narratives and storytelling – especially in fundraising – is a question for the whole of the sector, Patel adds.

“When you think about shifting power, that changes how you traditionally measure things,” he explains. “We are devolving that power and letting people have their own voices, but that breaks a lot of truisms that we have come to rely on in the charity sector.”

Tackling the truisms

Whether it’s the challenge of devolving power or taking on new digital approaches, a lot of the barriers charities face are internal, Patel argues.

“You are going from silos that have been built on 20 or 30 years of working for your fundraising and advocacy teams, and that is not necessarily the ‘user view’ of the world, where it’s about a journey and the different interactions,” he says.

“You have these truisms in the sector: ‘this is who donates to us and this is how it is done and this is how it has worked for us for 30 years.’ At every single charity I have worked with, this has been the case.”

And moving away from accepted truths will always be difficult because people are risk-averse, he adds.

“Why would you want to risk not raising the money that you could raise? Why risk going to an audience where you have tried this before and it hasn’t quite worked.”

How will Comic Relief maintain its core strong brand purpose as the organisation’s models evolve?

“We will always use humour and popular culture to get people to care about helping someone else. That is a core part of our brand that makes us unique. But what also makes us unique is our vision: a just world free from poverty,” Patel says.

“We’re doing some work through our social change strategy to think more deeply about that vision – what does it mean and how does it connect to all the things we do. Poverty is happening everywhere: Are we going to demand this be better, and how does that connect to all of the different work we do?

“There is a lot to do around our work and purpose – but this philosophy about helping communities help themselves will become a bigger part of our brand, and the theory that the people closest to the issue will have the solutions they need.

“When you support and empower them to do that, change can happen.”

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