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Windsors and Losers: The Historical Role of Nonprofit Work on the British Monarchy

Updated on May 18, 2013

Few things are more quintessentially British than the monarchy. It has existed for over a thousand years among a people that cherish pageantry and ceremony, incorporating it into the national cultural dialogue. Over the past three centuries, the role of the monarchy has transitioned from a political one to a ceremonial one, existing solely for symbolic purposes. As its constitutional influence waned, the monarchy has forged a new identity for itself through the promotion and patronage of philanthropic causes geared toward the poor and underprivileged. Their work has elevated their prestige and their value to society; and this is reflected in public opinion polls which show support for the monarchy at a 20 year high. What role has nonprofits played in this overwhelming support? This is the central question I will be focusing on, trying to discern the role of nonprofits in the forging of a pro-royal attitude.

By the time the present Queen ascended the throne, the British Empire was in the process of being dismantled, and in its place the Commonwealth of Nations was born.Since then, questions have arisen as to the function of the monarchy in a technologically-driven, globalized world. What is the purpose of an outdated, anachronistic institution that has no influence in politics or government? The monarchy’s popularity has risen and fallen over the past decades, as scandal after scandal has repeatedly rocked the institution to its foundations. As more and more people became dissatisfied with the news stories surrounding the royals’ private lives, people were asking themselves whether it was better to abolish the monarchy in favor of a democratically-elected president. The scandals surrounding Diana, Princess of Wales were especially damaging to the carefully constructed regal façade of the British monarchy.

Since the time of Diana the monarchy has used several methods to restore its image of duty and responsibility. One of the most effective marketing tools employed on behalf of the monarchy lies in their work with nonprofits, which is constantly used to reinforce the image of a hard-working Royal Family undertaking good works on behalf of the nation. Between them, members of the Royal Family hold approximately 3,000 patronages of charitable organizations, with Queen Elizabeth alone accounting for over 600, and her husband Prince Philip is President or Patron of over 800 charitable organizations, philanthropic societies, or nonprofits. Nonprofit work has had a significant influence in the public opinion of the monarchy, and has led to their continued survival in an era suspicious of inherited wealth and privilege. One of the most important roles of the monarchy is the encouragement and patronage of charitable and other nonprofit institutions, which in turn solidifies their image of virtuous, duty-driven individuals.

Royal antecedents: Charity work over the ages

Historically, royal patronage of charitable institutions and other types of nonprofits has been an important part of royal life. In his book Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (1995), Frank Prochaska documents the writings of Anthony Highmore, a respected nineteenth-century commentator, who wrote: “the munificence of princes forms the chief luster that irradiates their Crown, and transmits their names with honour to posterity”(pg.36). This advice was followed by King George III and his son King George IV. These monarchs were aware of the good impression good works had on the public imagination. The public expected their monarchs to be bountiful, honorable, and dutiful, especially toward the poor and disadvantaged. By the time Edward VII came to the throne in 1901, the monarchy had lost most of its political power. Royal associations with philanthropy became more important as the Royal Family strove to identify itself with the middle classes. The monarchy found a new outlet for influence after its political power was abolished, and this influence was exerted through philanthropic institutions. Social power was cemented through the monarchy’s association with furthering the nation’s social and charitable organizations.

Indeed, Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, declared that one of royalty’s main purposes was to take a leadership role in the furthering of philanthropic causes. He realized that to ensure the monarchy’s survival, the Royal Family had to take an active role in social issues and charitable organizations. Charity work was an essential part of the royal image; it helped win public approval and reinforced the monarchy’s role in British society as champions of social justice. In more modern times, as Beatrix Campbell (1998) notes, philanthropic works have had an important effect on the royal image, which today is as “solid and influential as ever” ( p.132).

“Welfare monarchy”: the new royal role

The emergence of the so-called “welfare monarchy” was enhanced by the female members of the Royal Family. Welfare monarchy refers to the gradual change in the monarchy’s role; moving away from the political sphere to the social services and philanthropy sphere, taking on leadership roles to support the wellbeing of the common British subject. This philanthropic tradition has been preserved by succeeding royal generations, most notably the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales.

One of the most influential members to expand this idea of public service in the twentieth century was the Queen Mother, who used charitable engagements to her own advantage during her reign as queen consort. The issue of royal image was essential to her, long before she became Queen, and later on, Queen Mother. As the wife of a royal duke, she assumed responsibility for improving the royal family’s image. Portrayed as having solid, middle-class values, the Yorks distanced themselves from the glamorous lifestyle adopted by their brother-in-law, the heir to the throne. According to Kelly (1997), they strove to present to Britain an image completely different from the short reign of Edward VIII” (pg.20).

Even before the coronation in 1937, the Yorks were much loved in Britain, since they embodied the family values dear to the middle class. In accordance with public sentiment, the press took action to reinforce the family’s image almost daily. As the embodiment of cozy British virtues, stories were published portraying the family as down to earth and rooted. An important aspect of this media image was Elizabeth’s participation in nonprofit work; she was frequently seen visiting hospitals, giving speeches, and appearing at fundraising events for the poor. The throne, from that point forward, was romanticized with the aid of the women in the King’s life, especially his consort Elizabeth.

Kelly (1997) maintains that “as the first commoner to marry into the House of Windsor, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons showed the country how royalty should behave. She ingratiated herself with twirly little waves and gracious smiles” (p.21). By posing for pictures walking her dogs in the park, pouring tea, and helping the disadvantaged poor, she appealed to the common Briton by embodying gentle family life. With these strategies she began establishing a myth that would elevate her beyond reproach in the public eye. In her detailed narratives concerning the royals, Kelly noted that “as she aged, she was celebrated as a befeathered emblem of a glorious past…the continuum that linked generations to their best memories of courage, duty, and steadfastness” (pg. 20).

The mass bombings of British cities during the Second World War caused thousands of civilian casualties, and amid this horror the Queen used this opportunity to console the afflicted and present a brave front to the nation during wartime. According to Prochaska (1995), “in September of 1940 Buckingham Palace sustained a direct hit, missing the monarchs by a mere ninety feet” (pg.222). After the hit, the King and Queen became even more dedicated to the war effort, touring hospitals, regiments, and feeding centers, many of which were run by nonprofit organizations such as the British Red Cross. Her tours of the bombed East End emphasized the caring, compassionate face of the monarchy, and throughout this time she still managed to find time to visit the smaller charities of which she was patron. She always wore her hat and jewels to these events, acting as a beacon of hope to the war-weary civilians. Prochaska (1995) found that she even enhanced the monarchy’s image from home, “sending sixty suites of furniture from Windsor Castle to families who had lost their possessions through bombing” (pg.223). In a further show of compassion for the afflicted, she paid for eight new ambulances in 1941. All of these gestures were accomplished under the guise of nonprofit work, greatly elevating public opinion in favor of the monarchy. Her constant visibility supporting charitable causes earned her mass adoration, which continued until her death in 2002. By the end of the 1980’s, the Queen Mother had become almost saintlike in the public eye. The important relationship between Palace and press had evolved by then to reflect the public’s increasing dissatisfaction with most members of the royal family. She alone remained immune to the constant harsh press endured by her family. This ultra-positive image of the Queen Mother helped keep the monarchy together during the various scandals of the 80’s and 90’s. The media’s influence over public opinion would give rise to one of the greatest challenges in modern royal history, stemming from the public image of Princess Diana. Like the Queen Mother, she used nonprofit work as a means to improve her image.

The Rise of Diana: The Monarchy’s Brightest Star

Lady Diana Spencer was the daughter of powerful provincial aristocrats, Viscount and Viscountess Althorp of Northamptonshire. The Spencer family was one of England’s oldest families and had been in royal service for generations. Diana herself was born in a house located on the royal estate of Sandringham. She would eventually become the most famous and photographed woman in the world, worshipped by the media and the masses. Campbell (1998) reflects that “never before had a young woman been subjected to such scrutiny; never in the history of the world had a young woman been so publicly sexualised” (p.179). Royalty attained the status of stardom with the appearance of this coy young woman in the Windsor family saga. The monarchy’s visibility was limited to ceremonies and other public engagements, which were meant to present the notion of dignity and reverence. With Diana, the visibility of the monarchy increased, especially with her frequent shopping trips and appearances at fashion industry parties.

But the fairytale marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales was a sham; having more in common with a sordid soap opera than a match made in heaven. Prince Charles was fourteen years older, was in love with another woman, and did not share any of Diana’s interests in pop music or fashion. During their separation, they both used the media to humiliate one another, and during this media spectacle they each used their work with nonprofits to try and enhance their image and to portray themselves as dutiful royals who had been wronged by their spouse. Prince Charles popularity plummeted once sexually explicit phone conversations he had with a married woman were leaked to the press. The public was shocked to hear their future monarch proclaim his love for a married woman. Kelley (1995) found out that “two-thirds of people polled felt Charles should not be King” (pg.436). After the transcripts were leaked, Charles was vilified daily in the press. His assistants tried to emphasize his good works and charity causes, but the media was more concerned with portraying him as a scoundrel who was two-timing the world’s most desirable woman. No amount of picture-taking with orphans or leukemia patients could have improved the prince’s image during that scandal.

The Princess, on the other hand, radiated in the press like a movie star. “As one headline put it: “The Princess Bids Halo and Farewell To Her Critics” (pg. 441). Her angelic image was solidified by her work with nonprofits. She was regularly photographed feeding the homeless, visiting hospices, and touring orphanages. In Nepal she hugged lepers, in Africa she ladled soup for refugees and hugged amputees. Everywhere she went, people turned out in droves to see her, mesmerized by her beauty, poise, and compassion. In short, she became the equivalent of a movie star elevated to sainthood, while her estranged husband became the national punching bag. After her untimely death in 1997, media representation emphasized her good works and devotion to others. This was similar to the media coverage of Mother Teresa, who died only a few days later. As Stanovsky (1999) points out, “both Diana and Mother Teresa are often held up as emblems of feminine virtue” (146).

Press and Palace: A New Era

Diana’s arrival in the royal tableau ushered in a new era in the relationship between Press and Palace. With reporters trailing Diana’s every move, the tabloids operated outside the usual deference and respect when referring to the royal family. Respectable media outlets, however; continued to report on the royal family’s activities in a respectable way. Tabloids asserted the dual right of the people to see as well as know what was going on within the House of Windsor. And these stories focused on lurid headlines regarding Diana’s supposed affairs and other scandals, acting as a counterbalance to the repectable news stories which focused on her charity and fundraiser work. The tabloid agenda pushed the royal boundary between the public and the private, which was breached with Diana’s arrival. Royalty attained the status of stardom with the appearance of this coy young woman in the Windsor family saga, though it helped redefine the relation between the monarchy and the media.

For nearly two centuries, the lives of Britain’s royals had been shrouded in privacy. Campbell (1998) notes the “the monarchy’s power to police that frontier had secured its extraordinary control over its audience, over when and how the royal family were to be viewed” (pg.180). The era of Diana hastened the demise of deference and ushered in a new era of mass curiosity. The monarchy’s visibility was limited to ceremonies and other public engagements, which were meant to present the notion of dignity and reverence. Diana’s press coverage, however, lent a common touch to the creaky, aloof concept of monarchy.

As the examples of the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales show, royal associations with nonprofits can have a tremendous impact on the public opinion of the monarchy. This association can have a huge impact on the public opinion of individual family members, helping them improve their image. But this is not enough to counteract the negative tabloid news which is still popular in Britain.

Reflections on Monarchy

Researching this topic yielded fascinating information on the linkages between nonprofits and royal tradition. It helped put British nonprofits in a new light, putting into context the monarchy’s relationship with nonprofits and charities while highlighting its changing role in British society. I learned how truly important nonprofit work is for the monarchy, especially since the loss of political power has meant the monarchy needed to find a new niche in British society.

What is fascinating about this topic is the unique ability the monarchy has to reinvent itself and to adapt to the new social landscape of the 21st century. As an institution it has proven itself indestructible against virtually anything, whether its anti-monarchists or the various scandals that have threatened to dismantle it. Even though Britain’s royals have exhibited questionable behavior in the past, the weight of history favors the continuation of a millenia-old institution which continually reinvents itself. The royal family has also used technology to get them closer to their subjects: they have their own YouTube channel, Twitter, Facebook, and official website. The Windsors have shown they understand the power of social media and how it can be harnessed to portray the monarchy favorably. This becomes infinitely easier to accomplish as Queen Elizabeth II celebrates the 60th anniversary of her coronation, amid the festive atmosphere of the Olympics and other royal-themed national celebrations.

Over a hundred years ago, social historian Walter Bagehot wrote of the British monarchy: “ in its mystery is its life. We must not let daylight in upon the magic.” Since then, the magic has been glaringly exposed. Many believe the harsh, explosive criticism of the 90’s would certainly lead to the destruction of an institution steeped in patriotism and pageantry. Throughout all of Europe’s kingdoms the idea of a constitutional monarchy is overwhelmingly supported; with Europe’s royal families becoming the fountainheads of national pride and tradition. The British monarchy will forever retain its capacity to adapt to the times, to ensure its survival in today’s technology-driven world.


Campbell, Beatrix. (1998). Diana, Princess of Wales: How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy. London: The Women’s Press.

Kelly, K. (1997). The Royals. New York: Warner Books.

Prochaska, F.K. (1995). Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy. New Haven:Yale University Press.

Prochaska, F.K. (2006). The monarchy and charity. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Stanovsky, D. (1999). Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and the value of women’s work. Feminist Formations, 11(2), 146-151.


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