The People’s Princess: Diana’s charitable legacy

04 September 2017

Princess Diana had a huge and lasting impact on charitable giving both during her lifetime and in the twenty years since her death. This article explores her charitable legacy.

Princess Diana supported many charities during her lifetime, often singling out causes which others would find ‘difficult’, ‘marginal’ or ‘unpopular’, for example homelessness charity Centrepoint, the National Aids Trust and the Leprosy Mission. And as we all know from the media, she was often very hands on with her charity work.

The reluctant Royal had the self-awareness to understand the power that her public role gave her and determined to use this to challenge and change attitudes on some of the thorniest societal issues of her time. In recognition of her philanthropic impact, in 2011 Stephen Lee, then director of the UK Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, said of Diana: "Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person's in the 20th century."[1]

After her death in 1997, Diana was able to carry on impacting the charitable causes she held dear via the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund which was established within days of her death, in response to the public donations that poured in to Kensington Palace in the days and weeks that followed. The general public, community groups and companies donated around £34 million and a further £38 million was donated from sales of Sir Elton John and Polygram’s CD of Candle in the Wind ’97 reworked for her funeral. More millions were raised through commercial partnerships, and proceeds from the exhibition, Diana: A Celebration, donated by Lord Spencer.

By the time the Fund closed, fifteen years later, it had awarded 727 grants to 471 organisations, and spent over £112 million on charitable causes.

The Fund’s aim was to give grants to organisations, champion charitable causes, advocate, campaign and raise awareness, to secure sustainable improvements in the lives of the most disadvantaged people in the UK and around the world[2]. The fund always intended to have a 'spend out' policy, in other words to allocate all its funding within a finite period before closing. 

In 2008 the Fund was in the vanguard of foundations offering grants to organisations that provide support and advocacy for young refugees and asylum seekers. It was also ahead of the game in funding projects for young people with mental health issues, something with the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry has recently carried to new heights. The Fund also worked with prisoners families, young people with learning disabilities, and in conflict zones around the world.

In its final five years (2007-2012), the Fund made the strategic decision to concentrate its funding in four areas in order to make more of a difference. These four areas were:  the Palliative Care Initiative for people with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life-limiting illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa; the Refugee and Asylum Seekers Initiative, so that people seeking asylum, especially children, in the UK should be treated with fairness, humanity and in accordance with international law; the Penal Reform Initiative to secure a sustained reduction in child and youth imprisonment in the UK, and to support the development of new approaches to help reduce offending by vulnerable women; and the Cluster Munitions Initiative to increase the protection of civilians from the effects of cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war.

Working as a proactive grant-maker, the Fund spent nearly £25 million on these four initiatives. A systems-change approach was adopted to establish a momentum for long-term social change and to ensure that any positive improvements secured would be sustainable.

Sharing learning

The Fund was also committed to sharing the lessons learned and which emerged from their evaluation processes and research in order to support greater evidence-based advocacy and grant-making. In 2009, a programme of events and resources were introduced with grantees, other funders and the wider voluntary and philanthropic sector; while in 2010 a wholesale evaluation of the Fund’s effectiveness and legacy was commission: A Funder Conundrum. This evaluation considered the following issues in detail:

  • How can funders bring about positive social change?
  • Does Funder Plus add value or is it more trouble than it’s worth?
  • Does working in collaboration with each other make funders more effective?

The Fund additionally decided to donate all of its grant papers to the British Library after it closed in 2012 so that academics and researchers could use these to aid in the exploring of social issues.

A lasting impact

In March 2013 The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry officially took over the legal ownership of the Fund meaning that any future donations made will go towards the work of the Royal Foundation, which has largely been to build on Diana’s legacy.

And that is really just one part of the mighty legacy of this one woman who touched so many hearts both during her lifetime and after her death. It would be impossible to calculate the full impact of Princess Diana’s charitable work and we can only hope that it continues to inspire people to be more caring, more giving and more socially aware.



[1] Ali, Monica (30 March 2011). "Royal rebel: the legacy of Diana". The Guardian.


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Cat Walker

Dr Cat Walker has worked in the UK voluntary sector for the last 17 years, including Charities Aid Foundation where she was Head of Research from 1999-2006, and Directory of Social Change where she was Head of STEAM (Sector Trends Evidence Analysis Metrics) from 2010-2015.

Cat now works as a freelance consultant and is the founder of The Researchery – a policy-focussed, strategic research surgery for those who want to get more out of data for evidence-led social change we can all believe in.

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