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Interview: Gavin Grant

The RSPCA's new chief executive tells John Plummer he wants to focus on improving the charity's finances

Gavin Grant
Gavin Grant

Gavin Grant, the new chief executive of the RSPCA, describes himself as a change agent. "I tend to get itchy feet if everything is straightforward," he says.

A glance at the charity's most recent accounts for 2010 suggests it is ready for change. Income fell by £14m to £115m, the charity spent nearly £7m more than it earned and membership decreased by 9 per cent to 39,000. Perhaps most worryingly for an organisation that is often assumed to have a never-ending supply of bequests from kindly Ethels and Dorises, legacies were also down by 21 per cent.

The animal charity, which employs 1,700 staff, still had £48m of reserves in 2010. But Grant, who was director of campaigns and communication there in the 1980s, says the 2011 accounts could show they have been eroded to something "perilously close" to breaching the society's policy of maintaining sufficient reserves for three to six months.

"When I was here before, we weren't talking about how many months' reserves we had, but how many years'," says Grant. He thinks the RSPCA has become too inward-looking, possibly because of the remoteness of its head office, a few miles from Horsham in West Sussex. "When you have big organisations in relatively small towns, they can become insular," he says.

Grant, a lifelong Liberal Democrat who was involved in Nick Clegg's campaign to become party leader, says the financial situation is his main priority. He pledges to protect front-line animal welfare staff from job losses but can't give the same guarantee for back-office staff.

"My job is to generate the income that means there won't be any job losses," he says. "If I'm not successful, the society is not in a sustainable position.

"The US can run budget deficits forever, but the RSPCA can't. We can't print our own money or sell our debt on the international market. We have to get ourselves into a sustainable position pretty quickly."

Grant, who was previously chairman of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller UK, is not short of ideas. One of his main goals is to increase "donations from the living" - by, for example, asking for permission to call back and request donations from some of the one million-plus people who report cruelty to its national control centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

"Perhaps we have not had to work that hard to generate public money," he says. "We were slow doing door-to-door and face-to-face, and on corporate partnerships. We have a lot of shops but haven't developed them.

"The RSPCA has done very little in the commercial space while other excellent charities have really got moving."

Grant thinks the voluntary sector as a whole underperforms on corporate partnerships. He established Burson-Marsteller's corporate social responsibility unit, worked at The Body Shop and thinks companies and charities should engage more with each other.

He gives short shrift to those who dismiss CSR as 'greenwash'. "I get a little cross about that," he says. "It says to me those people have probably never worked in business and don't understand how it works."

Grant says "any serious brand focuses on its reputation" and that listening to voluntary organisations helps to keep them grounded. Companies that don't listen pay the price, he says, citing the examples of BP and the Royal Bank of Scotland. In contrast, he says, Unilever and Bacardi "get it".

Grant recently suggested to Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, that government could broker relationships between large charities and major FTSE companies. "A lot of major companies want to engage more with charities, but there is no forum to bring them together," he says.

The meeting with Hurd is an example of the RSPCA's attempts to cast its eyes beyond Horsham. Another example is that Grant has arranged for this week's first meeting of the society's 25-member ruling council since he was appointed to take place in London so that staff and stakeholders can both meet him and say farewell to his predecessor, Mark Watts.

A later council meeting will take place in Doncaster. "I want the meetings to be located around key things the RSPCA does," he says.

Grant, who lives in Wiltshire and rents a flat in Horsham, also plans to blog, tweet and be active on Facebook. But he is focusing on strategy for his first 100 days.

"The danger otherwise is that you are driven by events," he says. "The urgent and immediate drive out the important and strategic."

Soon he will finalise his plans for change, but he has already decided that the current five-year strategy, which began in 2010, needs revising. "We have to be smarter at doing more with less," he says.

CV

2005: Chairman, Burson-Marsteller UK

1999: Chairman of public affairs, Burson-Marsteller UK

1994: Director of global communications and public affairs, The Body Shop

1991: Director of public affairs, Association of Unit Trusts and Investment Funds

1988: Director of campaigns and communication, RSPCA

1987: Campaigns director, Council for the Protection of Rural England.

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