The plenary session kicked off with Sir Lenny himself receiving the Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s first ever Special Recognition Award, for his contribution to fundraising with Comic Relief and his continued role in championing diversity and inclusion across the creative arts.
In a session that brightened Monday morning for everyone, Sir Lenny spoke first about Comic Relief and its phenomenal success: from a fundraising night of stand-up comedy by a ‘gaggle of fresh-faced comedians’ in 1985 in response to the famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan, to becoming an official charity, which has inspired the nation to help it raise over £1.3 billion for projects in the UK and worldwide to date.
Sir Lenny recalled: “Millions of mums, dads, schoolkids and workers wanted to play their part. Red noses absolutely flew out of Oxfam stores and at one point when Delia Smith did her cupcake recipe for us, there was a national muffin tin shortage that has only just been eclipsed by the recent run on toilet rolls.”
In a speech laced with his trademark humour, Sir Lenny’s description of the growth of Comic Relief was also full of pearls of fundraising wisdom – from the importance of communicating need and impact, to seeking out and listening to new talent and expertise, embracing new technology, and storytelling. He spoke of evolving storytelling away from the celebrity-led model Comic Relief started out with to encourage and enable the people the charity supports to speak for themselves.
In a question and answer session, he spoke about the sector’s innovative response to the coronavirus and how charities have come up with smart techniques and ways of working. He also highlighted how the crisis had enhanced people’s ability to understand and feel compassion towards a cause – and unite to help.
“The capacity of people to help those they will never meet is as present and powerful as ever,” he commented. “COVID has really united an entire country and showed me that compassion fatigue is a misnomer. When we see a problem we come together and try and fix it. We don’t turn our backs.”
Coming out of the pandemic and moving forward, Sir Lenny said he believes that people will continue giving and working together to help others: “because we want to, it’s what we do.”
He highlighted young people’s engagement in particular with causes such as Black Lives Matter and climate change, and how their use of social media and the likes of TikTok brings them closer to causes and empowers them to take action:
“They are seeing people less well-off and in worse situations than them and thinking ‘I can do this. I can lend my voice to this’. Young people are absolutely engaging with all of this and I salute them for that.”
Asked if he would do anything differently if setting up Comic Relief today, Sir Lenny pointed to the importance of diversity. Comic Relief, he said, has become better at this over the years but if starting now, it would be more diverse and inclusive from the outset. For other charities seeking to improve in this area now, his advice was to look beyond their doors and work to create a team reflective of the outside world.
“Look at who works with you and the community you’re serving and try and match up so that your team reflects what’s happening beyond your doors. It’s a matter of reaching out to your community, looking at the people who are there and asking how can we serve you and include you in what we do?”
The session finished on a light note with Sir Lenny asked who he would want in his team if he was to climb Everest for a future Comic Relief. The long list included everyone from Usain Bolt, the Krankies, and Matthew Pinsent, to the cast of Dad’s Army, as well as Ian Wright, Mo Gilligan, the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud, Akala, and Stormzy.
Sir Lenny ended by thanking fundraisers for all they do to make the world a better place: “A big shout out to everybody in the fundraising sector because you rock, you rock like a rocky monster.”