Simon Harrison, Head of International Events for Comic Relief, talks about the partnership between Comic Relief UK and Comic Relief USA and how they worked together to raise much-needed funds to support those tragically affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
It’s the beginning of September and America is reeling from the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey. Out of the blue, Comic Relief’s founder – acclaimed writer and director Richard Curtis – is approached by talent impresario Scooter Braun. Scooter is the mega-agent to stars such as Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande and he’s recently organised a concert that’s raised £2 million for victims of the Manchester terror attack. He’s now planning a telethon to help people affected by the Hurricane. Can Comic Relief USA, the charity behind Red Nose Day in the US, process the donations and manage grants to relief charities? With just over a week to make all of the arrangements, it’s incredibly short notice – but the answer is yes.
The Comic Relief team springs into action. The telethon – ‘Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief’ – is on September 12, so there’s no time to lose. Fortunately, the complicated jigsaw of technology and banking partners needed to process thousands of simultaneous donations is on standby too. They’ve worked together before on Red Nose Day in May and everyone knows the drill – even though planning normally takes 6 months, not 6 days.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma is threatening to be even more dangerous than Harvey. Florida is hit first. Alligators and enormous catfish are seen swimming along the flooded main streets. Time is running out and there’s still a huge amount to do, so the US team ask Comic Relief UK to help out with donations, branding and digital. On Monday 11, a small team from London fly out to New York for the final push.
Tuesday is a blur of meetings and last-minute arrangements. Hand in Hand will be a TV ‘roadblock’ – all of the main networks and many cable channels have suspended their schedules for the night to host the benefit, with no commercial breaks. It’s an incredible show of support. A telecoms provider has donated thousands of its call-centre operatives to man the phones. The team set up camp in a control room at ABC studios in Times Square – one of the 4 locations hosting the benefit – and a frantic few hours are spent checking that the script and on-screen graphics meet all the legal requirements needed when asking the public to give money.
Shortly before show-time, an eerie silence descends. The monitors flicker to life and the team blinks in amazement at the extraordinary line-up of celebrities manning the phone banks on the set next door. It’s a roll-call of America’s A-list finest: George Clooney, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Oprah, Justin Bieber, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx…all waiting eagerly for the calls to flood in. At 8pm, Stevie Wonder opens the show with a moving rendition of ‘Lean on Me’. Over the next hour, a series of guest presenters including Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey introduce powerful segments showing the terrible impact of Harvey and Irma on individuals and families across the country.
The live dashboard that tracks the money coming in from phone calls, texts and online starts showing a steady trickle of donations. Excitement soon mounts as the total goes up by hundreds, then thousands of dollars every few seconds. Millions of viewers are inspired to give whatever they can to help their fellow Americans. 60 minutes pass in a flash and suddenly Billy Crystal is announcing the end-of-show total – over $14 million. But money is still pouring in, so it’s clear the final amount will be much more. A week later, an astonishing $55 million has been confirmed and the Comic Relief USA team is focused on getting funds out to work on the ground as quickly as possible. Scooter Braun says "In the aftermath of tragedy, it's important that we take action and care for our neighbours. There is still so much rebuilding to be done and our hope is to not only continue to raise funds but also inspire others to do what they can to help. People are still in need, and will continue to be for a very long time. We all need to do our part."