Campaigns: Voluntary sector - Friends fight closure of Bray almshouse

Campaign: Saving Jesus Hospital Almshouse
Client: The Friends of the Almshouse at Jesus Hospital
PR team: Bell Pottinger Sans Frontieres
Timescale: August-December 2009
Budget: Pro bono

The Jesus Hospital Almshouse at Bray was commissioned by William Goddard in 1647 to provide housing for the 'aged poor' of Bray and 'remain forever'. Since the 17th century the site has been managed by The Fishmongers' Company. In 2009 the company announced it could not continue with the maintenance of the almshouse, home of many elderly residents, and wanted to transfer it to Bristol Charities, which would move the almshouse occupants to a purpose-built site and sell the building for development. The Friends of the Almshouse campaign was formed in the summer of 2009 to protect the residents from a forced move, and find alternatives for the building as it is.

Objectives

- To put pressure on The Fishmongers' Company and Bristol Charities to rethink the closure and sale of the almshouse

- To allow the Friends time to find a viable alternative solution

- To secure the future of the almshouse

Strategy and plan

The PR team gave the Friends advice on tactics for the campaign, and helped them develop their key messages. The Friends' website was revamped and a concise, emotive fundraising letter was drawn up.

The team then pushed for an independent assessment of the almshouse to be carried out, to disprove the assertion from the CEO of Bristol Charities that the building was 'unfit for purpose'.

A series of arguments was put together for media interviews, aimed at showing that the independent survey found the almshouse fit for purpose, and that the closure and transfer was in the interests of Bristol Charities and Fishmongers' finances, not local residents, as claimed.

A coalition of support was put together and local resident Sir Michael Parkinson agreed to become patron of the campaign.

The team then targeted local press, national newspapers and philanthropy desks with the story.

Local MP Adam Afriyie was targeted, along with parliamentary candidates from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party. Parish councillors and members of the local authority were also lobbied and a petition was set up.

Measurement and evaluation

In total 17 articles appeared in local and national press. Donations to the fundraising campaign increased and the independent assessment of the almshouse showed that it was fit for purpose. The petition gained more than 1,000 signatures.

Results

The Fishmongers' Company put a halt to its proposed transfer and granted the Friends four months to find an alternative proposal, on the condition that the negative press and lobbying against it stopped. The Friends were then able to find a solution and The Fishmongers' Company is in discussions with a Berkshire-based charity that is interested in maintaining the almshouse as it is.

Second Opinion

Rakhee Vithlani, Head of government and public sector campaigns, Weber Shandwick

Getting media, politicians and celebs to care about a home for elderly parishioners in Berkshire is a tough PR brief. This campaign proves that with the right messages and support, the power of media and PR really can prevail. It also goes to show that with a little hustle, getting famous and influential people involved is possible, particularly when local issues are concerned.

Stripped right back to PR basics, the approach was spot-on. Ensuring messages are in order, refreshing the website then applying external and independent pressure to instigate a change in decision is a classic formula that has been implemented perfectly. Perhaps digitally, creating an online community to fuel this pressure could have been an area to leverage. In doing this, it might have allowed for some of the personal stories of the parishioners or indeed their families to come through, in a sensitive manner of course.

This campaign ensured it answered all the challenges made towards it. One of the most important to local MPs was that the almshouse is financially sound and would remain so in future. It's easy to get caught up with the moral arguments and get carried away with media and celebrities, but this message I'm sure spoke straight to key decision-makers.

Overall, however, there's really not much that could have been done differently. This is a great pro-bono campaign that has led to a tremendous result.

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