RNLI - Part of the big society for nearly 200 years

The RNLI is remarkable both for its volunteers and for the success of its fund-raising. Alice-Azania Jarvis reports

In a small classroom in Poole, a group of seven lifeboat workers is having a refresher course in first aid. Hailing, in the main, from Arbroath in Scotland, they have come down to Dorset, where the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has its headquarters, to top-up their already considerable expertise.

Remarkably, 90% of the RNLI’s crew have no prior seafaring experience at all. Alan Russell, a burly Scot in a red fleece, was working as a mechanic when he first volunteered. Now one of the organisation’s few paid employees - he works full-time repairing his station’s boats - when he began, he had to be on-call around the clock, holding down a 9-5 job simultaneously. His employers didn’t mind his dashing off to perform rescues at the drop of the hat, but his family did: “I’ve got an ex-wife to prove it!” he jokes.

On joining the RNLI, volunteers like Russell are armed with pagers and given a crash course in sail and rescue. From that point on, they are prepared to be called to work at any time of day or night. They can’t venture too far from the station because if the pager goes off, they’re expected to launch a boat within 10 minutes. Within 30 minutes, they should be 10 miles out to sea.

“Our job is to find the ordinary people who are prepared to do the extraordinary,” says Paul Boissier, the charity’s CEO. “A builder, a judge, a housewife, a solicitor who will wear a pager day and night and, when it's two in the morning on one of those really cold winter nights, will get up and go out for no pay and quite often no recognition.”

In the summer months, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution conducts somewhere between 30 and 40 rescues a day. This year they will save some 400 lives, launching 28-29 thousand rescues from the 235 RNLI stations across Britain and Ireland. Around the coast, there are 165 RNLI life guarded beaches. Indeed since their inception in 1824, when Sir William Hillary established the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, the RNLI has prevented in the region of 140,000 deaths.

All this, famously, occurs without government funding. Tax breaks aside, the RNLI receives not a drop from the public purse. The overwhelming majority of RNLI boat crew – some 97% of their 5000-strong force – are volunteers. The remaining 1% is made up of mechanics and engineers. At a time when the charity sector is being cast out in the cold by government cuts, the RNLI is already there, leading the way by doing what they’ve always done, for almost 200 years. “Irrespective of the noise the politicians make about it, a lot of us have been doing it for a long time,” reflects Boissier. “The Big Society is here.”

Boissier’s office is scattered with maps, letters from grateful rescues and testimonials. He took over at the RNLI two years ago, after a career in the navy which saw him operating submarines in the tense waters of the Cold War and appointed Chief of Fleet support (“another job where I was surrounded by extraordinary bravery”). Since arriving, he has undertaken a significant restructuring, shaving £13 million off the institution’s running costs, and re-investing that in services and technology. “In a way, we’re fortunate that we’ve never taken government funding as the cuts won’t affect us,” he explains. “It would be easy for us to put our feet up and say that we’re fine. But we mustn’t.”

Instead, they have introduced a series of so-called “lean techniques” – a phrase borrowed from Toyota’s famous attempt to increase customer value by eradicating waste, and one which the Big Society’s champions would surely chomp on with glee. Each week, a different area of the organisation is taken into consultation, and asked how they could be doing things better. Rarely, says Boissier, do they struggle to come up with suggestions – and almost always, those suggestions are made a reality: “Now I can look a donor in the eye and say that if you’re giving us a pound, you used to be getting a pound worth of business out of it - but now you’re getting one-pound-ten or one-pound-fifty.”

And what a lot of donors there are too. The RNLI has a budget of over £140 million, all of it made up gifts and bequests. They are experts in the art of fund-raising, with some 35 thousand fund-raisers working up and down the country, organising events and rattling tins. It’s remarkable, really - amazing that a single cause can mobilise such grass-roots support. How on earth do they do it? “The thing is, the British public, they get it,” reflects Boissier. “Its easy to think of the RNLI as a national charity - but I almost think of it as a federation of local charities. So if you go to Hartlepool or Weymouth or Padstow, and you put a pound in that box, you can feel a real sense of ownership. And the next time a boat goes out to rescue someone, that will be your doing. The public buys a share. That is the real power of it.”

Boissier works hard to ensure that the funds keep rolling in, stressing the importance of nurturing a personal relationship to maintain that coveted “ownership”: “We always try to make giving a pleasant occupation. People who want to give money, we bring them right in. We allow people to form a long standing association with the station they give the money to - they can walk in, have tea with the crew. People can come to us and have a conversation about getting their name on a boat. There’s not a single cookie cutter solution.”

Of course with the economy showing little sign of perking up, and spending power diminishing even further, it’s not likely to get any easier, a fact of which RNLI staff are only too aware. Already, as the recession has taken its toll, they have found its income flatlining – all the more reason for those “lean” techniques. “I see this as a time of almost Darwinian change in the third sector,” says Boissier. “A lot of charities are losing significant amounts. They will be forced to find revolutionary ways of maintaining income flows. What we’re showing is that you can reduce your budget and improve your output quite considerably. I do believe that we have found a methodology of change.”

As well as the recent efficiency drive, the RNLI has begun to adopt new approaches to soliciting help. Last year they started, for the, first time, to accept what Boissier terms “non-traditional donations.” Prompted by an offer of pro-bono legal help from a solicitor, they realised they needn’t just accept donations in the form of money or boat crew – services could prove just as valuable. In the first year, they received 50 such offers; this year they’ve doubled that. New teams of seasonal fund-raisers have been deployed across beaches where the RNLI operates lifeguards. “Not to be intrusive,” stresses Boissier. “Just to engage people in conversation: ‘Have you thought that this is an RNLI guarded beach?’, that sort of thing. It comes back to making giving a bit more fun, a bit less threatening and, as far as we can make it, a very personal business.”

Amidst the savings and the innovations there is one area on which Boissier and his team are determined not to scrimp: that of lifeboat safety: “Above anything else, my first priority is making sue the guys get home safe.” Out in the boatyard, that priority becomes apparent. From carbon-fibre chairs to digital surveillance cameras, the rescue vessels gleam with state-of-the-art technology. The adjacent training school boasts both a £300,000 boat simulator and a five-metre-deep swimming pool, complete with wind machines and wave technology. All RNLI recruits are made to spend 45 minutes, lights dimmed, lying on a raft in the pool at its most turbulent. That way, reason training staff, they will be able to empathise with their rescues when they come on board.

Back in the classroom, the boys from Arbroath are reflecting on why they do it. Not one of them had experienced the RNLI’s lifesaving first hand, but all felt a sense of attachment to the organisation before joining. As a close-knit coastal community, Arbroath’s own fate is intertwined with that of the RNLI; without it, there wouldn’t be anyone to rescue the local curmudgeon who, on Hogmanay last year, decided he was fed up with celebrations and went our fishing at one in the morning – nor the woman who, last week, drove over a cliff and had to be dragged to safety from her car. For Paul Castle, a paramedic who signed up after being called to the scene of a near-drowning, it’s as much about community as anything. “We are all involved in it. My wife’s involved. She does RNLI events.”

Indeed it’s this involvement, this commitment that keeps the RNLI functioning; without it, no amount of cash donations would suffice. The youngest recruit in the classroom is Pete Smith, a Poole native who grew up ten minutes away from the headquarters. He’s just bought his first house, a step which took considerably longer than he anticipated thanks to his lifesaving obligations. “We chose our house according to how quickly I could be at the lifeboat station,” he laughs. “Our plan was to move further out, where it was cheaper – but I couldn’t.” Once an RNLI man, always an RNLI man, it seems: “I’m involved now. That’s just how it is.”

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits