Patronage may seem a positive thing for a charity or institution. In many cases, it increases the profile of the organisation, allowing them to expand their influence. This is especially true in cases of high-profile patronage, like when Emma Watson became a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2014. With patrons having such a profound effect on an organisation, it’s important that they’re chosen with care. What happens if, for example, a certain individual meets the criteria of being high profile but your knowledge of their life and even character is highly restricted? If that same patron is later disgraced and forced to resign from the very position that makes them high profile?
The case I’m speaking of is that of Prince Andrew. In August 2019, court documents were unsealed that implicated him in the repeated sexual assault of Virginia Giuffre. The victim was under the age of 18 in 2001, when the first assault was reported to have occurred, making the allegations all the more shocking. Public interest in the allegations was (and still is) fervent, causing Prince Andrew to give a now-infamous interview to BBC Newsnight in November 2019. Whether or not the allegations were true, they so negatively impacted Prince Andrew’s reputation, and that of the wider royal family, that they led to the loss of his military titles, return of his royal patronages and renunciation of his HRH titles in January 2022. The scandal and taint caused by the allegations alone marred not only the reputation of the British royal family but those of the charities and organisations that had been associated with Prince Andrew.
Previously, the Prince was known to be the patron of an estimated 200 charities and organisations that have since been returned to the Queen. Reports suggest that some of these organisations perceived the infamous interview and allegations to be so damaging that, much like rats deserting a sinking ship, they removed him as their patron and thereby severed their organisations’ association with him. These institutions include the London Metropolitan University and the Royal Ballet, both of which announced that the Prince had resigned as their patron nearly two years before he officially returned all of his royal patronages to the Queen in 2022. Although these patronages have reportedly been redistributed amongst other members of the royal family, the affair may have a significant impact on institutions considering royal patronage in the future – the University of St Andrews included.
St Andrews is famous for being the university attended by Prince William and his now-wife Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, a fact that’s proudly celebrated both by the University and the town itself (both of which can be said to have profited by association). North Point Café may be trendy for its toasties but, perhaps more significantly, it’s known for being “the place where Kate and Will met for coffee”. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have regularly been invited back to the University, with the Duke attending a Gala Celebrating the 600th year of the founding of the institution as a patron and, most recently, visiting St Andrews on the couple’s tour of Scotland in May 2021.
One could argue that an organisation runs the risk of being tarnished by association with any high profile individual they choose. However, the specificity of royal patronage may be more of a risky endeavour. Unlike many public figures, the British royal family are more generally afforded discretion and privacy when it comes to reporting. Certain details of their lives remain shielded from the public eye for their security. Whilst this appears plausible and sensible to most people, it necessarily means that charities and institutions know less about royal patrons than they would about other individuals. Previously, this may not have been considered an issue but, given what has occurred recently with the disgraced Prince Andrew, are organisations naïve moving forward to associate themselves with people about whom they can never really know? Is the benefit of a royal title worth the damage control any particular institution may have to undergo in order to salvage its own reputation?