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.”

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