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Updated: Apr 30, 2020

We have all heard about Captain Tom. I have been fascinated by his story and what we might learn. There is already so much you can read about his story so forgive me for not reproducing it here, but what interests me most is our response.

We haven’t heard from many elderly people during the COVID-19 outbreak and yet so many are isolating or being shielded. Captain Tom is a war veteran, he lives with his daughter and on 30 April will be 100 years old. He is still mobile with a bit of help and clearly is driven to show he cares; he wants to do his bit. Doing a 100 laps of your garden may be a strange way to approach this but he set himself a goal and set out to help people who he saw as being on the front line, just like he was during the war. He expresses such humility when he talks and perhaps we all see him as a granddad figure, full of vigour, still wanting to make a contribution to society.

So how on earth did he raise such a large sum of money, over £29 million for ‘the NHS’, you might be asking? It is easy to say that he had so much media coverage that this was always going to be the case. Having worked in the media and in charities for many years I think that response is too easy and writes off the phenomenon without properly considering what just happened.

It’s a very human thing to want to be valued. It seems to me that we all got to know Captain Tom and wanted to let him see that his voice was valued. His story, based on his experience - particularly for me his comparison between him being on the front-line during the war and the NHS staff now on the front-line, where both scenarios share the possibility of losing your life - is something that I could empathise with. The surprise at his age and what he was doing added to his story, and the fact that he had recently been in hospital with respiratory problems; again he shared experience of being well looked after and returning home with a major milestone looming. Perhaps there is also a bit of a hope that I am as active and driven as he is if I live to be 100. Something for me to aspire to.

So does Captain Tom know that his voice has value? The funds raised is just one way of showing this but is not very personal; the media coverage, the royal mail stamp, guest of honour, Spitfire flypast, a train named after him (and the rest) and the thousands of birthday cards arriving from people he doesn’t know, I think might have just made him glow and feel good! He has become the centre of positive attention not just within his own family but much wider afield. He has become very connected! He has made a contribution to society. He has asserted his independence through his actions. I think he must have a strong understanding of who he is and can see the circumstances he finds himself in as separate from his own identity. And so he decides to describe to other people his experience to create change for them. I am guessing that there has been a lot of change for him too some of which will have come as a great surprise.

I empathise with Captain Tom; I am sure you do too. His story got our attention and we wanted to help him achieve his goal. Together we certainly did that in no uncertain measure! For me, the agency of Captain Tom, his personal experience, his story and his ambition is something that the charity sector might learn from. Here is some of what he has said:

‘When our nurses go in to work at the moment, they must feel like Daniel going into the lions’ den because they don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know they’re in for a pretty tough day and by gum they’re brave. It’s marvellous that so many kind people are helping those on the front line. Our army in this war are wearing nurse and doctor uniforms.

In the war, we had to carry on whatever was going on and we knew eventually we were going to win and it’s the same with this virus. There’s no doubt we’re on the winning side. We shall survive and we shall all get through it well in the end. The future is in front of us all, and things will get better and we will get through this very difficult time. We’ve fought so many battles as a country and we’ve always won, and this time and this time we will win again.”

A question that jumps out at me is; did we respond to Captain Tom to make him feel valued or did we respond to the cause he chose to support? It’s an interesting question because the combination for me was a perfect pairing and irresistible. I would say I responded to Captain Tom. He became the agent for the cause. The cause was the NHS. And I agree with him that our support for the people handling this emergency is very important.

It seems to me that what has happened also sheds light on how a perfect combination of ‘beneficiary’ voice and ‘cause’ working together is what has been missing from the charity sector during this crisis. Actually, maybe for a very long time.

You see for me a ‘cause’ is defined by its ‘voice’ and how it is seen to be valued. The stories from people working in the NHS, the people who have experienced NHS care during the COVID-19 crisis are there for all of us. Each of them wanted, I would imagine, to have their voices valued too by telling their story, their experience of the virus and their thoughts on what might help other people either to avoid the virus or survive. Again, this is a very human instinct when something matters to you a lot. It is one person’s story and their desire to stop the same thing happening to someone else that created the many and varied charities we have today with their many and varied ‘causes’.

Together - Captain Tom and the NHS (the cause) - their voices have demonstrated ‘voice as value’; Captain Tom’s ‘cause’ is understandable in a very personal and empathetic way.

This is all about people, their experience, their stories. It is also about an audience having a willingness to listen, to understand, to trust in people and to act to show they value the contribution. This isn’t necessarily to give money it can also be about creating social change.

It seems to me that over the past decade many charities have been talking about their own organisations as the cause, talking to themselves, rather than what the cause means to people who benefit, communicated by the beneficiaries in their own voice. The virtuous circle of ‘voice as value’ is incomplete. It has been very apparent to me that charities seem faceless in this crisis.

Why are the people who benefit from charity support not centre stage telling their stories right now?

The interesting thing about Captain Tom is that he told his story about the NHS in his own way, he related it to his personal experience and then acted with conviction not at the prompt of the agency he was fundraising for. The ‘cause’ didn’t try to safeguard him and shape the story he told so that it was slick and fitted with strategy, framed to support fundraising or policy change, talking to the organisation agenda in the language of the organisation and the sector. The cause didn’t ‘own’ him.

So Captain Tom. I salute you.

I think you might have created a scenario which, if charities are brave enough, could seed social change in ways which were unimaginable ten years ago. This would be an unexpected outcome but, in my opinion, it is long overdue.

Happy 100th birthday!

You can read more about him here:

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