Royal recognition

How can we help: Why we give, and how we might do it better

Remembering the late monarch with a selfie

“Well, they do a lot for charity…”

It’s a common response when you ask people what purpose the British royal family still serves. For some, good causes are the monarchy’s primary purpose: according to recent research from Charities Aid Foundation, a third of Brits believe that the royals’ most important role is supporting charities. (It’s not clear what the remaining two thirds feel is most important.) And a quarter think they first heard about a campaign or cause thanks to royal support.

But do they really do a lot for charity?

Analysis in 2020 by Giving Evidence of the apparently rather opaque world of royal patronages found no evidence that these increase a charity’s revenue (in some cases, they may even cost them money), nor that royalty increases generosity more broadly.

Nearly three quarters of charities with royal patrons did not get a single public engagement with them in 2019 (although those set up by royals – making up 2% of all the UK’s patronee charities – fare better: in 2016-2019 they got 36% of royal public engagements with patronee charities).

Royal recognition might offer some less tangible benefits. In a statement following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, CAF’s Neil Heslop said that “her Majesty provided inspiring support and encouragement to staff, volunteers and trustees throughout the charity sector”. Giving Evidence does acknowledge that it didn’t measure, for instance, the impact on staff morale of a royal patronage.

And charities initiated by royals can point to some impressive-sounding achievements. The Prince’s Trust, for instance, says it returned £1.4 billion in benefits to society over ten years through its help for disadvantaged young people. But who knows if it would have achieved just as much, had it been created by a non-royal (but equally motivated, well-connected, etc.) Charles, or by some other celebrity.

And in any case, charities also do a lot for the monarchy. As journalist Simon Usborne puts it, “For at least two centuries the royal family has used a dizzying array of charitable pursuits – in tandem with a canny employment of PR – to add legitimacy to its reign.” When that legitimacy is questioned, a solution is to double down on good causes: when the queen and her heir were seen as “cold and remote” following Princess Diana’s death, it apparently prompted a period of reflection that led to the creation of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.

And that’s part of a long tradition. Victoria became queen “only five years after the 1832 Reform Act launched modern democracy in Britain,” Usborne writes; she and her husband “understood that they had to rebrand as do-gooders to ensure the monarchy’s survival”.

So, while blue-blooded presence can supercharge fundraising efforts, they may also benefit the individual/institution on show. Gala dinners in the early 2000s for the Prince of Wales Foundation in the US “fascinated gossip columnists and helped Charles restore his image”, Usborne writes.

Where royals perhaps make the most difference is when they bring attention to unpopular causes. Giving Evidence points out that while patronee charities are diverse, they’re mostly in “relatively uncontroversial causes” such as environment, culture or sport. Compare that with Princess Diana’s work to challenge the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS; or more recently, her sons’ efforts to draw attention to mental health. (They’re not the only high-profile figures to speak out about this, but the fact that celebrities declined to support William and Harry’s charity, because they did not want to be associated with mental illness, suggests they were breaking new ground.) And the new King has a long record of speaking out about environmental causes before they became mainstream.

Maybe it’s when the royals risk their reputation and speak out on something unexpected – precisely what they’re not really supposed to do, and which Charles will have to do less in his new role – that they can achieve the most.