Stephen Cotterill: Why Comic Relief is right to ditch the white saviours

29 Mar 2018 Voices

Comic Relief has faced some criticism over its decision to ditch celebrities from its films, but it's the right decision, says Stephen Cotterill.

Ed Sheeran, fundraising for Comic Relief

Celebrity endorsements for worthy causes have always had inherent problems. Firstly, there is the risk to the reputation of an organisation or campaign which yokes itself to a personality. No amount of due diligence can safeguard against the erratic nature of fame – the drunk driving incident, nightclub brawl or skeleton-crammed closet.

Then there is the power the famous have which can be wielded without necessary care or forethought for the damage it may cause a charity. The recent Oxfam scandal saw celebrities illuminate malpractice by withdrawing support as soon as the partnership of mutually beneficial benevolence started to sour.

There is no defending the actions of those involved in the Haiti scandal or the efforts of the charity to obfuscate the truth, but these high-profile denouncements remove all nuance and can undermine previous good work in the blink of a paparazzo’s eye.

Having said that, we also saw an impassioned defence of the organisation’s greater good from longtime ambassadors such as Simon Pegg. This served to voice an understanding to a larger audience that the baby should not necessarily be sloshed out with the bathwater. The power of celebrity for pro or con is undeniable.

Every hack knows a name sells newspapers, and fundraisers know that attaching a big star to their cause can provide a direct conduit to a wide and untapped audience.

Sport Relief’s decision to use a less garish celebrity presence in the storytelling for this year’s appeal was an ethical decision following criticism Comic Relief received for so-called “poverty porn” or “white saviour” techniques employed in its 2017 Red Nose Day campaign.

'Beneficiaries tell their stories themselves'

This year, celebrities were still prominent on the night and household names including actor David Tennant introduced video segments about the work of charities. However, this time the beneficiaries were allowed to tell their stories themselves.

The debate is whether or not this has the same impact, especially on the type of donor who is prone to align themselves with a brand or celebrity rather than a specific cause, and who may only give once or twice a year to high-profile appeals. Sport Relief’s approach could be interpreted as bold or foolhardy. Even Liz Warner, chief executive of Comic Relief, admitted that the change might affect fundraising in the short term. The appeal this year raised £38m on the night – its lowest total in a decade.

There may be many reasons for this and the figure will no doubt swell over coming weeks, but it raises the question of whether eschewing fame is sustainable when you need immediate impact or long-term ambassadorship. Will people watch a film about Malaria victims without a pop singer’s ginger mane blowing in the desert wind?

It can be argued that it is the fundraiser’s job to make people care but still, engaging celebrity may continue to be the necessary dance with the diva they have to do to have the greatest impact.

This column is taken from the April edition of Fundraising Magazine, which will land on 10 April. For more information on the magazine, and to subscribe, click here.

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