A conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh that helped create £60m

The founder of WCRS recalls helping the Duke of Edinburgh raise money after being pushed to be better by the late duke.

Almost 30 years ago, I was led by a uniformed footman into a small circular library that lies at the heart of Buckingham Palace.

His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh had his back to me as I entered. He swung round with his legendary stare and perhaps wondering why a bow-tied adman was standing in front of him.

I was there because his son, His Royal Highness Prince Edward, had asked me to come up with an idea to raise £10m for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

And this, gentle reader, was in 1991 at a time of a major recession.

Tucked in behind me, rather like the back of a pantomime horse – fearful of an impending outburst from an HRH not known for his patience – was the second in command of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

I now had to present "my idea" to The Duke who had founded his remarkable award scheme. 

My "product interrogation" had made one important discovery: when HRH hosted a fundraising dinner with 25 potential corporate donors in Buckingham Palace, the dinner would typically raise a paltry £25,000. Despite the footmen pouring fine wine into crystal glasses, despite the solid gold cutlery and platters, this is an average of a measly £1,000 per head.

And this at a dinner with the world’s number one royal brand – whose passing we are now all mourning.

No wonder this award was short of funds if they couldn’t leverage their brand more effectively. It was clear to me that they were aiming at the wrong target audience. 

So, I evolved my strategy – privately called “Flogging the red carpet at Buckingham Palace". 

Or as I was about to explain to HRH, targeting the next generation of successful entrepreneurs.

These were people who had made money but hadn’t yet got recognition. And, happily, the values of this new money were a perfect fit with the values of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The likes of the late Bernard Matthews could understand the vision of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award: that inside every young person there is a talent waiting to be unlocked.

I suggested to HRH that the first generation of entrepreneurs could be persuaded to contribute £100,000 a year for five years to support the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Charter for Business – which I had invented to enable these values to be shared amongst more young people. 

In return, the entrepreneurs would be invited to a whole series of events, mostly at royal palaces, where HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Prince Edward would mingle with them, photos would be taken, and the D of E Award would be financially strengthened. 

If this was an elevator pitch, it had hardly got to the fourth floor when – to my joy – HRH said, “Sounds all right to me.” 

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award man hiding behind me almost fell over with surprise. 

Clearly, I was on a winning streak. I asked HRH if he’d be kind enough to sign a letter inviting these entrepreneurs to a presentation at Buckingham Palace where I would, in partnership with HRH Prince Edward, make our proposition to these entrepreneurial moguls. 

The reply was swift and decisive, “No. I will write to them when they give us something and not before.” 

"The boss" as he was known in Buckingham Palace, was entirely right. My suggestion would have been dilutive of the royal brand. 

He also forbade his son to sign the letter of invitation. 

What I desperately needed was a letter going out to the likes of Bernard Matthews with the Buckingham Palace royal crest on the official note paper. 

So, we parted with me thanking him for his gracious acceptance of the core idea. And, I then had to find a solution.

In fact, HRH was a shrewd marketing man who wanted to protect the brand yet leverage it to attract funding in an appropriate way.

After a week of worrying about this, I found a solution. Nobody had forbidden me to ask HRH Prince Edward’s private secretary to send out the letter of invitation on the Buckingham Palace note paper. 

Which we did. And soon we were getting 85% acceptance – even though they knew they were coming to have their pockets picked (Bernard Matthews – with typical generosity – was one of the first to sign up. Bootiful!). 

Soon HRH Prince Edward and I were pitching once a month – followed by a lunch in the Chinese Dining Room at Buckingham Palace – to these successful entrepreneurs who could hardly wait to give us their money. 

And soon we were having dinner gatherings with 150 entrepreneurs mingling in the royal palaces. 

The Duke of Edinburgh – now passing me with a twinkle in his eye – and HRH Prince Edward were always at the events to show their support. 

And, with fabulous event organisers led by Maggie Tyler, everybody was soon introduced to everybody else. With a result I hadn’t anticipated. These entrepreneurs were furiously doing business with each other – it seemed that over £2bn of business was being done with the financial contribution to the award the loose change in the transaction. 

In the first decade, this Charter for Business Programme didn’t raise £10m. It raised over £60m.

And this happened because HRH The Duke of Edinburgh inspired everybody, including me, to do better. 

It was a sad moment for all of us last Friday. But I will carry the memory of that meeting with me for the rest of my life. 

And it is a matter of huge pride that The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award has now transformed over five million lives. 

And, in that one meeting in the library, it transformed one more. 

Your Royal Highness, thank you very much.

Robin Wight is a founder of WCRS and Engine as well as the Ideas Foundation charity.

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