On the day that Princess Diana died, after a morning of numb disbelief and phone calls, it was a relief to go grocery shopping. When I reached the checkout line I was surprised to see at every till a yellow bucket into which shoppers were tossing loose change. Lots of it – and even some notes too. When I got closer I saw the label on the side: “For Diana Charity.”
I hesitated before adding my small contribution. On the one hand, I was touched by the spontaneity of the desire to create some practical benefit from the tide of emotion sweeping the country. But on the other, I was troubled. Who was organising this and which “Diana Charity” did they mean?
For most of the previous decade I’d had an insider’s view of the princess’s charity work. As her private secretary, it was my happy task to organise her contact with all her patronages and I was one of only two trustees of her personal charitable trust. I knew that, to Diana, her charities were her daily inspiration and often her lifeline to normality too. The whole subject needed the most delicate handling, especially now that she was dead. Her humanitarian work was ended and anyone who claimed to perpetuate it in her name also took her reputation in their hands.
Eventually, I assume, all the money donated in similarly haphazard fashion all over the country found its way to reputable causes. Hopefully they included some of Diana’s 200-odd official patronages, a cross-section of the voluntary sector which covered the spectrum from AIDS and leprosy to drug abuse, meningitis, the elderly and the disabled. Some of that supermarket generosity may even have found its way into the biggest bucket of all, the Diana Memorial Fund, the well-intentioned but flawed vessel intended to carry the princess’s good name – and lots of money – to the distant horizons of posterity.
Now the Fund is to be scrapped. Its many beneficiaries will surely be sad but there may be others less upset at the passing of this diminished reminder of the first and noblest wave of Diana sentiment. Set up with the finest motives – and many fine words – from the outset it seemed unable to comprehend the essential simplicity of Diana’s charitable instincts. I admit my heart sank as I saw the trustees line up for their photo call. A worthy crew no doubt – but I wondered how many in their hearts felt able to safeguard, let alone sustain, Diana’s 16 year record of public service.
Some anxious observers, including a few familiar with the princess’s aversion to committees, suggested all the dosh should go to one single centre of excellence for childcare. Its purpose would be self-explanatory and earn lasting gratitude for the much-loved woman who would be its permanent inspiration. And there were plenty of blue chip experts among her existing charities who could make it happen – quickly, sympathetically and without a whisper of scandal. Job done.
The opportunity was missed. Instead of a quick and finite act of transparent charity, the Fund seemed more concerned to market its own version of the Diana brand. Not content with the extensive range of Diana’s charitable interests when she was alive, it found new ones to which it could shackle her name. A grant to Balkan bee keepers was just one of several I might have had trouble justifying under her unblinking blue gaze.
Perhaps distracted by the siren-song of reflected virtue, the committee at the helm was lured onto the rocks of hubris. “Diana” margarine cartons and other attempts to copyright a world-famous and very dead historical figure carried more than a whiff of arrogance. And soon there was the calamitous six-year debacle of the fight with Franklin Mint.
This naive attempt to defeat an American corporation in the American courts ultimately cost the Fund its credibility, not to mention £5m in legal fees and £13.5m in a bizarre out-of-court settlement. Most painful of all, it dragged Diana’s name into the kind of controversy that she would have deplored.
Unabashed, the Fund sailed on, still retaining an earnest belief in itself as the authorised guardian of the Diana flame. Long detached from first-hand knowledge of the princess’s own wishes, it draped itself in dreary verbiage. Where once there had been glamour and passion, now there were po-faced pronouncements about “the rights of the disadvantaged” and a “lasting legacy of social change.”
All very fine in the committee room but just the kind of sloganeering that would have earned from my earthy and patrician boss a snort of amusement. She loved taking a pin to pomposity, as I learned to my cost. It was her sense of the ridiculous as much as her compassion that made her so welcome at the hospice bedside, the refugee camp and the fundraising gala.
It was also her recognition that being a royal patron didn’t in itself deserve special praise. Taking credit for other people’s good works is a royal occupational hazard and, for the most part, she was suitably wary of it. Her job was to focus public concern on the unsung work of those who really did the caring. On a good day (which was most of them) she had no trouble expressing humility in the presence of such saintly people, lightened with humour and sprinkled with the magic dust of her beauty and charisma. That was her job and it gave her vital rewards of satisfaction and fulfilment.
As the recent triumphs of Hollywood and the ARK dinner fade into memory, advisors to The Duchess of Cambridge, now reportedly contemplating the massed ranks of charities begging her patronage, will know that raising money is the easy bit. Be the bucket yellow plastic in a supermarket or gold-plated at a glitzy gala, if it has a royal name on the side you can usually sit back and just watch it fill up. It’s what happens next – to the money and the patron – that matters for the long haul.
Royal patrons may not often actually get busy with the bedpans but they earn donations nevertheless. If they do it consistently, elegantly and with the right degree of humility, they earn love and respect too.
Some of Diana’s words came back to me that black summer day in 1997 as I drove away from the supermarket and its generous, trusting shoppers queuing to donate their hard-earned change. It was two years earlier and she was in New York to receive a prestigious “Humanitarian of the Year Award” from the hands of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She seldom agreed to accept such recognition but had made an exception after much pleading from the organisers who described her fundraising powers as “lightning in a bottle.”
“Quite right” I said. “You’ve earned it.”
Her eyes on the night-time Manhattan skyline, she was quick to correct me. “I don’t really deserve this.” But then, after a moment, she added a thought that perhaps sums up the simple secret of successful royal philanthropy. It gives a clue as to why the memory of Diana will long outlive the Fund that took her name. It might even help explain all those yellow buckets in the supermarket. As always, it came with a laugh.
“…but I’m working on it.”