Samir Patel CEO at Comic Relief at the Pilotlight conference 2023


On Thursday 9 February we held our first in-person annual conference since 2019. Bringing together our Pilotlighters and Partner Charities, it was a chance to hear from and meet with inspiring leaders from across the world of charity and business. We were honoured to have Samir Patel, CEO of Comic Relief, kickstart our event with a keynote speech on the five things he’s learned coming into the charity sector. What follows is a transcription of that speech.

Hi everyone. Thanks for having me.

I'll try to keep this fairly quick, maybe have some time for a few questions. It's interesting being here because I'm new to the charity sector. I've worked with charities for a long time, working in an agency, I’ve worked with a lot of non-profits from the agency side, but now I’m working in the other chair. I joined Comic Relief almost two years ago now, at a moment of great change, joining during the pandemic. It was a great personal change. I just had a daughter, I'd worked at this other agency for a long time, was quite comfortable and then decided to jump in and work on this side of the fence. I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of my reflections coming into this sector.

How dare we try to do good?

So, the first thing is that there's a very interesting thing about working with the charity. And I'm speaking as Comic Relief. You know, we are a 120 people, £50 million organisation. We're a fairly large charity, but I wouldn't be surprised if these things resonate across all sides of charities.  

This is my first learning working in this sector: if you were a for-profit business, you would be expected to do what you can to hire the best talent to innovate, to try new things, to make mistakes in the name of progress and so forth; if you're a charity, you're almost actively discouraged from this. You have the media ready to jump on anything, and politicians questioning the need for your organisation, so it can be difficult in terms of trying to do different things. People work at charities because they believe in the cause, obviously, and because we do cause-driven work. Because we do a lot of work around frontline support or with organisations that offer that support, as you know, there are high levels of stress. There are lots of mental health concerns as we deal with tough situations such as crises, safeguarding, impact for real people. But if we want to look after our own people and pay them well and offer benefits and so forth, we're criticised. I understand there's a scrutiny that comes with any organisation that is using money from donors and the public. But we don't get the same leeway that a for-profit business doeswhich is strange. 

We don't get a pass on the other side, we don't get a pass on the financials. You know, when our annual report comes out, the only thing that gets reported on is our decline in income. Our income has been declining for a number of years and we report on the impact metrics, on the stories of impact from the ground and what we're doing there, but [the decline in income], that's really all anyone seems to be interested in. So that's been interesting coming into the charity sector. As if we're doing something bad by raising only £50 million, because we used to raise £100 million ten years ago. So, we live in this, kind of, almost like a climate of fear operating as a charity, which is really frustrating. It's hard to be confident as a charity. 

Grappling with shifts

And also, we're going through these huge, huge kind of tectonic shifts in so many areas, and we don't necessarily know how to do what we've always done before in today's environment. Finding out how to operate in new ways is difficult and it's something that many sectors are grappling with, but certainly our own. For Comic Relief, this is especially difficult because we're a little bit of an anomaly. If you look at the top 30 funders in the UK by size, they are all trusts and foundations, except for Comic Relief and Children in Need. And so, we have some interesting tensions that we have to grapple with. As a grant maker and on the funding side, we think like a foundation, we operate like a foundation. We want to move towards more trust based relational type of funding and we have.  

We're quite a progressive funder actually, we want to offer more core funding to organisations, that changes the traditional impact metrics. It changes how we can use that kind of relationship to then tell a story to the public and to other donors of why they should care. And we want to drive more long term change and really deal with the structural drivers and not just the symptoms around the issues we deal with. All of that is in huge tension with the fundraising side, which kind of sticks to the truisms of the past 30 years. It's got to be about urgency. It's got to be about appeals, and actually the data shows that is what people still respond to. And I think it's something the whole sector is grappling with.  

When you're trying to decolonialise philanthropy, or you're trying to drive long term change, or you're trying to trust organisations and hand them money with no conditions and let them figure out what's needed there, well, what's the story then? We're telling the public, who may want to know, how many malaria nets their £10 funded and so forth. That is a real tension. We haven't solved it. No one else has solved it. But that's what we're working on and thinking through.

It's quite interesting because, as a public fundraising charity, we are almost afraid to ask for money. This is quite interesting. This is Comic Relief, well known for our fundraising efforts, but we actually have a huge contingent amongst our staff saying, can we soften that language? Can we not ask this kind of thing? We'll go out of business if we can't reconcile this.

So, we're grappling with these really big shifts right now, which I'm sure resonate and I think it's something across the sector - how do we tell stories in this new world of impact? How do we make the case? How do we move beyond the traditional metrics? We don't all know what this means yet.

Risk innovation paradox

And I think both of those points culminate in this point. Risk mitigation is a bigger concern in the charity sector than most. And I can understand that. But it's also unfortunate because it's also in our sector. This is where innovation is needed the most in many cases, but it's difficult to do that. And if we're going to engage the next generation of people to care about social impact and to drive social impact themselves, if we're going to truly try to drive impact in new ways, in different ways than we have in the past, we need to be trying new things. We need to be speaking to new people. We need to be finding different models. But it's very difficult within the sector for all of the reasons that I mentioned.  


I'm still getting my head around the role of trustees. When it comes to the charity (and this has nothing to do with our trustees at Comic Relief who are all amazing and lovely, it's not a comment on them), but, you know, the wider governance framework that we have to operate within is interesting to say the least.  

What a difficult role a trustee is: you're doing this, you're not getting paid, you're coming in a couple of times here and there, you're not close to all the day-to-day work, but yet you have ultimate responsibility for the governance of the organisation and the strategic direction and ultimate accountability. So I feel for trustees as well, and I've chatted to many CEOs at many charities, who all find the tensions of working with the board tricky. And I think it's going to be interesting as we move forward again with all of these shifts that we're dealing with, not all trustees are completely up to speed with all of these shifts, nor can they be. They are busy, some are retired and so forth. So, it's also navigating that you have a younger generation within your workforce who are trying to make change in new ways and oftentimes an older generation who comprise many of your trustees, maybe not all of them. How does all of this work in concert moving forward?  

Looking beyond

And so, I think the last point is, how do we really now start to look beyond some of these points and some of these challenges that we grapple with?

We see disruption. This is kind of a theme, I guess, to all these points. We see disruption in many other sectors. And it's difficult. It's difficult to find and create positive disruption from within our sector. And we're very inward. I feel like we tend to look at the sector, talk to other charities and so forth. Meanwhile, every organisation is engaging with purpose. We now compete with Nike, not just other charities, for people's attention. This was always our territory. It's not anymore. It's a world full of purpose. So what kind of chance do we have when we're facing that?

Now there are obvious examples of disruption in other sectors around technology [such as] Uber and Airbnb, where they're coming up with new business models. But it's not just about tech, it's about community. You know, there's a game called Warhammer. Some of you may know. It's quite interesting. Their stores have become real community centres. They're driving this agenda of impact through this platform of engagement. There are lots of places and spaces to look for learnings. What can we learn from different types of commercial models for membership and loyalty schemes? What's our version of cash back? How do we think of all these different things that work in other sectors and apply them to our own?  

So, there are lots of things that worry me about this sector and lots of challenges, but ultimately what gives me hope is everything is about purpose. And this isn't a side thing, this isn't CSR, this isn't about PR. This isn't advertised. It's the core reason for why we exist, and it's about that real hard impact on the ground or in other kinds of areas, and I believe that purpose will take us quite far and I believe a lot of our answers lie in that. We're doing work even with our board to make sure everything ties back to why are we actually doing it.  

Because when you think of it that way, in some respects you can get around some of the risks. You're willing to take risks when you tie it to what it's ultimately about. When it's just about the bottom line or it's just about some of the more pedestrian day-to-day matters, or the burning urgency of just surviving and keeping your charity going, it's easy to forget that. But the more we're driven by [our purpose] the more I think that we'll be willing to try new things and make more things happen.  

So those are my quick reflections of being new to this sector, sort of short and sweet. I don't know if we have time for a question, but happy to take one.  

Question 1: I was just wondering whether Comic Relief gets involved much with researching some of the issues that lots of different charities, especially now we're talking about environment in the environmental sector, are dealing with? For example, lack of diversity and inclusion, the attitude that volunteers do community projects and they be paid staff. All that sort of thing. Whether that's an area that you guys are investing in because it's an unusual area for people to invest in and that's why we've got that problem across the charity sector?

Samir Patel: Yeah so we're just now talking about this, as part of our new strategy. We have a new strategic programme around climate change, which is a new area for us. And we want to make sure that we can figure out - what's our role and how do we find our role in this sector in a way that doesn't overstep others already working in this sector? What's the research? Where are the areas of need? So as part of that, I think we'll do more of that kind of work before we can really step in. So yeah, that's something that we're just now starting to talk about.

Question 2: When you're talking about the kind of disrupting and looking elsewhere and Comic Relief’s income is down, do you have any out of the box, blue sky thinking, that you're taking into the future and where you'll be looking? 

Samir Patel: Yeah. Well, I think that, at the end of the day, it does come down to the audiences and stakeholders that we're dealing with. As long as we're driven by that and think of where the things and places people are already engaging. If someone is sitting and watching BBC One and doesn't care about gender justice, we have to take that challenge on and think about what is the thing they care about and are interested in and how do we use that? Just as a glimpse to draw them into a world of purpose. So I think it's really about those areas of affinity that different people have and how we work with those and work with the messengers that are closer to those audiences than we might be.  

Thank you very much.