A bit of danger and excitement in a good cause

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It's Borneo all over again! My daughter Sam has terrorised me into doing something that goes against my natural grain. Here I am, absolutely terrified of water, and she's got me rafting the wild rivers of northern British Columbia. Studying the promotional literature for our expedition on the Taku, Sheslay and Inklin rivers, the phrases "a complete river safety talk", "a couple of exciting rapids" and "a swift dance through an occasional boulder garden" leap out at me. So do the qualifications of the River League's guides: certified in whitewater manoeuvres and rescue, trained in first aid. Why does that not reassure me?

The River League specialises in trips through an area that has been labelled the Serengeti of Canada for its wealth of animal life. The League won international recognition in 1994 with a campaign on behalf of Kitlope, an 800,000-acre area that may be the largest intact temperate rainforest left on earth, which was under threat from loggers. The League took in a team of researchers, writers, photographers and wilderness advocates and helped ensure Kitlope's classification as a class-A park. It was Sam's idea to get a handful of The Body Shop's franchisees together to raft the Taku River, another pristine environment that needs protection from loggers and miners.

I'd be a hard-hearted Hannah if I didn't admit to being thrilled by the sound of Chunk Mountain (the purple promo prose talks about "blue-hued glaciers draped on deeper blue rock"), or the Canyon of Raptors with its wheeling flocks of falcons and eagles, or Goat Haunt Mountain, or even the promised gourmet wilderness cooking. But there is an awful lot of water between me and them. You won't have to wonder where I am if I'm not back next week.

As it is, I'm fronting up late on the Taku, because this week I went to the inaugural conference of the NHS Confederation in Brighton. Two thousand National Health managers gathered to discuss how to deal with the changes the NHS must make to modernise. I was roped in as a guest speaker to talk about how The Body Shop manages change and marries non- economic values with business.

The match of the NHS with The Body Shop isn't as incongruous as it sounds. I believe we have a lot in common: the tensions and turmoil that come with transitions, corporate anguish during the process of change, and the constant need to shape the leadership role of management to balance awareness, persuasion, diplomacy and resolution. Like a cosmetics company, the NHS has to keep faith with its public. But it also needs to keep faith with its health workers, many of whom are motivated by the desire to help others, which is simultaneously one of the NHS's greatest assets and a real tyranny for the service.

And it's not the only tyranny that any company or organisation trying to be socially responsive will encounter. I know them all well: the tyranny of time (no time for reflection); the tyranny of assumption (you shouldn't assume, yet sometimes you have to try); the tyranny of inadequate measurements (how do you measure the development of the human spirit?). Change is a tyrant, too. It usually looks and sounds much simpler than it is. Just establish your vision. But in the real world the vision mutates, especially when new leaders come into play and business realities impose themselves.

That is the situation the NHS finds itself in. But what better time or place to meet the challenges of the future than under a new government that has already shown an intelligent and healthy commitment to change!

When I look back at the growth of my business, I see that working without a net was an asset for The Body Shop. We broke ground, I've had enormous freedom to experiment in bringing social activism alongside commercial activity. Obviously the NHS cannot experiment with people's health, but it has an opportunity to explore new ways to communicate with people, to convey its commitment and care.

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