Help for Heroes
"We just wanted to do something. It was really simple; an emotional response. We said to the country I don't mind how you do it, just get out there and do your bit" Bryn Parry, Co-founder of Help for Heroes.
Help for Heroes (H4H) turns ten years old later this year and is therefore still a relative infant in the charity playground. The initial idea was to raise money for a swimming pool at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey. Co-founders, Bryn and Emma Parry, found they were unable to work within existing military charities’ objects to raise money purely for the new facility. However, unperturbed, together with Mark Elliott they decided to set up their own charity and launch a sponsored bike ride to meet that need.
The sharp rise of H4H has been quite extraordinary surprising onlookers and staff themselves. How did they get so big so quickly? Some say it was nothing more than a spot of timely luck. H4H launched in 2007 at a time when a conflicted British public were feeling somewhat embittered about the decision to go to war but yet wanted to support the men and women who had risked their lives and battling life altering conditions as a result of that choice. Images of repatriated coffins being brought back and paraded through the streets of Royal Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire seemed to hit our screens weekly. In fact if you look at the statistics the year after their launch in 2008, donations to armed forces charities (excluding H4H) grew by 2.4%, contrary to the overall declined in donations to the UK’s top 500 charities * which would support that proposition. However one does not grow from four people sat in an innocuous Tin Hut in Tidworth with some borrowed desks, phones and a cork board to a charity who have built four recovery centres across the UK and helped over 15,000 men and women by luck alone.
Having established that there was still more to be done to help injured service men and women, H4H needed to devise a model that would allow them to meet that need. However these guys were the new kids on the block and so they asked the curly questions not because they were cocksure but because they were, by their own admission, relatively inexperienced. H4H did however recognise that the words “we’ve always done it that way” are some of the most dangerous in the English language and they did not want to lose the momentum and support they had worked hard to garner by becoming so vanilla that they paled away into a sea of over 2,200 other military charities. If there is one thing I have learnt this week about H4H is that they are not afraid to go against the grain to maintain their roots and integrity.
I have heard it said that with its rapid growth H4H has somehow lost its focus. Indeed there was an article published in the national press the week before I arrived expressing such a view. Having spent a week with H4H I will wilfully put my head above the parapet here and tell you why I now disagree with that conclusion.
Yes this charity has had to do a lot of growing up fast. Have they always got it right? Certainly not and they have inadvertently ruffled a few feathers in their ascent, at times perhaps flying slightly too close to the sun. H4H have learnt from their burns and it is refreshing to see both H4H and its service charity counterparts now rising above any scrapping and land-grab politics. Such rivalry quickly turns the public off charities at a time where there is already quite enough negativity in the press about the sector without generating further. Indeed I am almost loathed to give the issue any airtime if I did not believe it was an important point to make. If we look at matters through the eyes of an anxious beneficiary, navigating the wealth of charitable support can be a minefield or as I have had it put to me this week a ‘Moroccan bizarre’ of traders (charities) vying for custom all claiming to serve you best. What is clear is that beneficiaries are best served by a more united offering from service charities and in an ideal world each would act as a friendly signpost. Whilst I do not believe the sector is wholly there yet, matters are moving in the right direction. Indeed H4H recognise they are not the experts in all aspects of service delivery. They feel a responsibility not to use supporters’ money to reinvent a wheel which is already being perfectly well-serviced by another service charity. As Bryn would it coin it “its all about the blokes” and H4H have donated over £31m to over 60+ specialist charity partners in pursuance of providing the best support for the wounded.
H4H supporters and staff are without doubt the most die-hard bunch I have come across. You only have to google Help for Heroes tattoos and you will find hundreds of them, probably only just pipped to number one by cancer awareness ribbons. Of course you can’t judge a charity’s supporter passion on its propensity for body art alone but it is clear that this charity is in people’s hearts and minds. Its supporters go to great lengths raising money for the cause, take Louis Nethercott, former Royal Marine battling PTSD, who is crossing the world's five largest islands, an incredible feat. Why are people so impassioned about this charity and how has it raised the money it has? Much is down to the cause itself but a lot must be said for the relationship H4H fosters with its supporters.
What of focus and more particularly has it lost it? To address this I will return briefly back to my head (which if you recall was bobbing precariously above that parapet). We’ve talked a little already about the origins of this charity, in that Tin Hut and so it would be sensible if we started back there. Indeed it also helps us answer those questions of passion and funding.
I approached the Tin Hut in Tidworth curiously, unsure what to expect. I had been told this was where volunteers came to telephone supporters and had chuckled to myself the night before, imagining women buzzing about a wartime telephone switchboard in some corrugated bomb bunker. Upon entering the hut door I realised my imagination had not been all that far off the mark…
My jaw fell, as my senses took in my surroundings. Each wall of the Tin Hut is quite literally plastered with images of beneficiaries, supporters, staff, volunteers, thank you cards, cheques and milestone moments. It was quite a sensory overload to pause and behold. I was greeted by Sheona, volunteer manager at the Tin Hut. A gloriously cheery scotswoman and a notorious ‘feeder’ (in a good way) Sheona offered me a cup of tea, potato croquettes (retro) or a mint magnum (all donated by the volunteers/public). I opted for the (safer) ice cream and sat down read to be set to work on the telephones.
The telephones are manned on a Tuesday morning by an army of lovely retired lady volunteers affectionately referred to as ‘The Tuesdays’ (being rather like the girl band ‘The Saturdays’ just older and with much more swag!). Sitting in amongst the bunting, it is their job to telephone every supporter (to the extent they are able to reach them) and to simply ask how their cycle/bake sale/knit had gone and to say thank you for their time, money or effort. There is no other purpose to those calls than that. At H4H it is never about asking for more money and this is a practice which is decidedly against its principles. These thank you calls have been something the charity has done in the Tin Hut right from its humble beginnings and now, despite its growth, it continues to put volunteer resource into simply chatting to and thanking its supporters. It is my firm belief that there is not enough gratitude or praise in the world and the fact that this charity places such a value on that is unique indeed.
I spent time at the marvellous recovery centres at the beautiful Tedworth House and in Plymouth and played volleyball and wheelchair rugby with the beneficiaries. I have to say I was expecting to have to play a little delicately given some of their injuries but after the first ball - the gloves were off and the banter was flying! The centres themselves are truly amazing places offering residential rooms to the wounded and their families, physical rehabilitation, education courses and practical classes in cooking, painting, writing, acting, music, thatching - you name it! The Round House at Tedworth is an impressive collaborative project being built by beneficiaries under the guidance of leadership from external parties including the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Beneficiaries are given psychological, financial and careers support throughout their whole lives and no matter when it was that they served.
A word must be said about their brand, which has won consumer super brand in 2015 and 2016 and ranked 9 in the top 100 brand storytelling survey #1 for emotional appeal and #2 for vision and mission beating giants such as the likes of MacMillan. Indeed H4H have corporates clamouring to work in brand licensing partnerships with them. This is an enviable position but one that comes with a lot of responsibility not to dilute the brand and protect its integrity. H4H aim to choose partners which tie in with their beneficiaries or recovery elements such as sports, horticultural and DIY products. The success story of the Dewalt power drill branded with H4H selling three times as many as its unbranded version is a testament to the power of their brand asset. H4H have made charity clothing pretty cool, in partnership most of us have seen people out on the streets donning their classic navy hoody with the stretcher bearers. The trading operation is run as a separate company (owned by H4H) with certain profits contributing to the charity arm. The model has helped to offset overheads allowing H4H to proudly operate at a level where 80p in every £1 donated is spent on helping ‘the blokes’.
Hundreds of British Armed Forces have returned with amputations since Britain’s conflict in Afghanistan went great guns in 2007. This is due in part to the reliance of insurgents on roadside bombs but it also reflects the great work of the frontline medical teams and advancements in technology such as lightweight Kevlar fibre ballistic armour which mean that more soldiers than ever can survive some of the most devastating injuries. Are H4H needed, now there are technically ‘no boots on the ground’? The truth is that not a lot is known about the effects mentally and physically on some of these amputees as in previous conflicts they would simply not have survived. H4H is working hard to discover the impact of not only physical but what they term ‘hidden wounds’, anxiety, stress, anger or depression some of which only emerge years after service. H4H is working with other charities to support those with mental health, raise the profile and remove the stigma amongst potential sufferers.
From the Paralympian gold medalist to ‘Pete the Feet’, Little Josh, ‘One-eyed Simon’** and the chap who comes to Tedworth House pool each week slowly building up self-confidence in the water again so that one day he can take his young family on holiday to the seaside, H4H may be mavericks in this sector but above all they are making an enormous difference to the lives of wounded and sick service personnel and veterans.
I’ve been so inspired by my time at Help for Heroes and whilst it may sound trite, I cannot describe it any other way than to say it has very much felt like a family that has welcomed me into its fold this week. As such, I have signed up to their Dawn Raid South 50 mile bike ride in June this year and I am looking to gather some fellow lycra brothers and sisters! If you like to join us please give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up here.
** Nicknames adopted by the veterans themselves