Who'll be the belle of the charity ball?

Every good cause needs a patron, and this week 100 good causes are looking for a new queen of hearts to replace the Princess of Wales. Where to look? And what does a patron do, anyway? Jack O'Sullivan reports
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The Independent Online
Diana is the perfect patron. Popular, royal, photogenic, well- connected and caring, she can prize open the most tightly clamped wallet. For 15 years, she has charmed the great and the good, the generous and the mean, flattered them, flirted with them and left them defenceless to the claims of a good cause. "The Princess is very good at twisting arms," said one charity director this week. "She isn't shy talking about money. She looks people directly in the eye and asks them to help. 'You are going to give, aren't you?' she says. They simply melt."

But it isn't just her persuasive powers that have made the Princess top of every go-ahead charity's list of would-be patrons. Staff, many of them volunteers, many working long hours for low wages, have loved her. "For them, not having Diana means losing not only a money-spinner, but also a morale booster," says Neil Jones of the Charities Aid Foundation. "They say that the great thing about Diana is that she makes visits unannounced, often when the press isn't there. Think of what she did for morale at the British Deaf Association, when she learnt sign language."

Now, suddenly, Diana is gone. The face that launched a thousand appeals will no longer do what a million rattling tins could never have achieved. Arms will go untwisted. Consciences will not be challenged. Since Tuesday, when the Princess dramatically announced her resignation as patron of all but six of her 110 charities, many of Britain's caring institutions have been left stunned.

Will the charity ball still sell out this year without the Queen of Hearts? Who will win over those tough-minded captains of industry and lull them into forgetting the bottom line for a while? How will Help the Aged manage, having quadrupled its annual income to pounds 50m under the patronage of Diana? What about Ty Hafan hospice, which raised pounds 100,000 after she persuaded Luciano Pavarotti to give a fund-raising concert in Cardiff? The English Women's Indoor Bowling Association may find other ways to make the ladies in white look hip, but there will be problems at the British Red Cross, which the Princess helped to raise pounds 95m last year.

Of course, having a royal on board is not absolutely necessary to win big donations. Oxford University has demonstrated that having a good public profile and many friends in high places still means you can catch the big fish. It has raised hundreds of millions of pounds in the last decade, without much resort to royal patronage. This week, it announced the establishment of a new business school, with pounds 20m given by Wafic Said, the Saudi millionaire businessman. And Lord Harris of Peckham, the carpet millionaire, has demonstrated that it doesn't require royalty to separate some people from large sums of money: as a Conservative Party treasurer, he has filled Tory coffers without any help from the royals.

But when it comes to charities that need a touch of glamour, Diana's pulling power is best, outperforming all the rest of her family. And commoners, frankly, are not up to the job. Even Sir Angus Ogilvy, certainly a nob, but royal only by marriage (and short of HRH) is patron of more large charities (25) than the closest pleb, the Archbishop of Canterbury (17). A survey by the Charities Aid Foundation of the top 250 charities finds the royals in overwhelming demand as patrons. Even the Duke of Westminster, who sounds royal - even though he isn't - will do.

In comparison, the biggest hitters among ordinary celebrities are way behind: Esther Rantzen (London Lighthouse, Childline, Breakthrough Breast Cancer and John Groom's Association of Disabled People), followed by David Bellamy (Royal Society of Nature Conservation, Marie Stopes, Gaia Foundation) and Chris Bonington (Nepal Medical Trust and Lepra). Only on rare occasions - such as when Roy Castle, dying from lung cancer, was patron of the Lung Cancer Fund - do ordinary but famous folk make as much of a difference as the blue-blooded.

The modern patron is ideally royal, according to Lady Celestria Noel, daughter of the Earl of Gainsborough and social editor of Harpers and Queen. "Primarily they lend their names to organisations. Having the Queen on the letterhead underlines a charity's bona fides and confers more gravitas than a rock star who is someone who might be famous now, but will be a has-been, whereas Princess Alexandra will always be Princess Alexandra. An ex-politician is political, whereas the Royal Family is above politics. Members of the Royal Family are also known to more people. Everyone of a certain age might know who, say, Elton John is. But older people might not. There is something of permanence about the Royal Family." At least, that was true until the Duchess of York was jettisoned and the Princess of Wales was stripped of the title HRH.

So what do the nobs do for all the fuss about them, the embossed stationery bearing their names and the adoring colour portraits in the annual report? To many, patrons of charity may look like no more than rich people getting a kick and kudos out of mixing with the lower orders, the poor and the needy. But to those who run these charities, they are a lifeline, making the difference between hitting the big time in fund-raising and toiling away in obscure poverty.

Without a big name and big connections, charities have little choice but to plough through lists of grant-giving organisations, which are already subject to endless request from rivals. The rich do not take kindly to direct, unsolicited requests for money where there is no personal connection. They tend to have set up their own trusts and a bureaucracy of sifting through those seeking help. A patron can cut through the red tape and discover fresh sources of goodwill and wealth by networking his or her elite society.

It works at a local as well as a national level. Regionally-based charities often choose a toff as their public representative. The patron might be the Lord Lieutenant of the county or some landed grandee, who is able to knock the heads together of local bigwigs and impress businessmen into paying into a good cause.

"Nationally, there are two kinds of fund-raising events that a patron will help out at," says Celestria Noel. "She might be asked to host a private luncheon for 30 or so specially picked people who will feel privileged to have been invited. You meet the patron who will be well-briefed on what is needed - for example a new wing to a hospital. She will walk around chatting and a couple will be able to sit beside her for lunch.

"Then there is the charity ball, perhaps once a year, when the patron is the guest of honour. The great thing is when she comes, you can put up the prices of the tickets." Typically, having a royal around adds pounds 25 to a lunch ticket and pounds 50 extra to the price of going to the ball. The Prince of Wales has managed to raise pounds 5m simply by turning up for charity polo matches.

The most active royals are the juniors. And favourite patrons tend to be the women, because photographers love them. Most people would rather see a picture of the Duchess of Kent than the Duke of Edinburgh. Yet male members of the Royal Family do their fair share with Prince Philip topping the patronage league (800), the Prince of Wales (459) third, behind the Queen and the Duke of York (90).

Not every charity craves aristocratic attention or, indeed, any form of patronage. Cafod, a Roman Catholic charity, is patronless. "Not having a glamorous patron is part of maintaining our credibility," said a spokesperson. But most charities are not founded by organisations who have such a charismatic a figurehead as Pope John Paul II.

Talk in the charity world is that unless Diana changes her mind, many will be turning to the Princess Royal. She is already over-committed as patron of 222 charities. But she has been an enormous asset to Save the Children since becoming president in 1970. She is seen as steady, reliable, permanent, and unlike her former sisters-in-law, she will always be HRH. That means a lot in a world where, as the saying goes, "a royal handshake is worth a thousand pounds".

Six suitable patrons-in-waiting

Delia Smith

Profession: cook and tutor to Britain's would-be gourmets.

Assets: wholesomeness; saint-like unflappability and patience; common touch.

Wealth: considerable - her business empire is worth around pounds 14m; sales of her Winter Collection earned her pounds 1.6m in three weeks.

Downside: a little too mumsy, perhaps - would you pay pounds 100 to sit next to her at dinner?

Joanna Lumley

Profession: triumphantly reborn actress, writer, model.

Assets: elegance, energy; patron of the Gaia Foundation (works with indigenous peoples in forest areas).

Wealth: earned around pounds 500,000 in 1994; current voguishness suggests this will continue.

Downside: guards privacy jealously; may resist being paraded too often.

Jarvis Cocker

Profession: gangling hero of the Common People.

Assets: voice, sincerity; massive popular appeal after disrupting Michael Jackson's Brits performance.

Wealth: his band, Pulp, earned pounds 2m last year; their last LP, Different Class, sold a million copies.

Downside: unconventional, unpredictable, unknown to the over-forties.

Darcey Bussell

Profession: pre-eminent ballerina justly hailed as the new Fonteyn.

Assets: English rose looks, girlish charm, absurdly long legs; combines family appeal and sex appeal; famously apolitical.

Wealth: earns an estimated pounds 100,000 a year.

Downside: "Sorry, can't make lunch, I've got a Swan Lake matinee".

Victoria Wood

Profession: comedienne-next-door.

Assets: witty, amiable, no doubt a sparkling speech writer; already a patron of London Lighthouse, the Aids charity.

Wealth: undisclosed, but playing the Royal Albert Hall for 15 sell-out nights in 1993 must have netted a tidy sum.

Downside: still a working mum with two small children to look after.

Will Carling

Profession: erstwhile England rugby captain and management consultant.

Assets: straight-talking (called rugby establishment "old farts"); gets things done; marketable at balls ("I danced with the man who, you know, whatevered with the wife of the Prince of Wales!").

Wealth: consultancy firm makes around pounds 500,000 a year; takes home around pounds 150,000.

Downside: semi-resident in tabloid gossip columns.