NEWSMAKER: The civil and military man - Ian Townsend, General secretary, Royal British Legion

Emma Maier

Ian Townsend was a latecomer to the voluntary sector, but he is doing his best to make up for lost time. After spending 30 years in the Army and six years in the private sector, his appointment as general secretary of the Royal British Legion in 1996 was his first taste of working in the charity world.

Seven years on, he is driving the Legion through the most ambitious and far-reaching strategic restructure in the charity's 82-year history. He also sits on the trustee boards of three small charities, is a director of two charitable companies, a member of ACEVO and has agreed to be a trustee for the MOD's recently established Armed Forces Memorial Trust to commemorate those killed in service since 1945. "My wife just about gets to see me one day a week," he jokes.

Although Townsend's move into the sector, and specifically to the Legion, might seem like a natural progression for a distinguished ex-officer, the decision was as much about personal development and bringing a new culture to the organisation as it was about any sentimental attachment.

Townsend, despite having been in the services himself, did not have any particular links with the Legion. However, he did have plenty of ambition and experience in running large organisations.

"I saw myself getting older and I wanted to take my final chance to head an organisation that was interesting, challenging and diverse," he says. "On top of that, there was the additional cachet of wanting to put something back."

Although Townsend has embraced the transition into the voluntary sector wholeheartedly and has found the sector a rewarding place to work, he admits that the cultural changes have taken some getting used to.

"When I retired from the military, I left behind my car, my driver, my personal PA and a team of support staff," he says. "On my first morning in the private sector, the PA that I shared with five other people asked me if I wanted a coffee. When I said yes, she pointed out the kettle and told me where the cups were - it was a good introduction into the real world outside."

Townsend's move to the Royal British Legion came at a time of great upheaval and soul-searching for the charity, and threw up its own set of challenges and frustrations.

The Legion is an enormous organisation with 500,000 members, and is also a benevolent charity to assist the country's 5.5 million serving and ex-service people and their 7.5 million dependants. The demarcation between the two parts is not clear, and demographic changes are altering the whole make-up of the Legion's traditional supporter base. Membership numbers are falling as fewer people join and more and more supporters from the World War Two generation are lost. The number of people entering the forces is also falling, reducing the Legion's pool of natural supporters. In the next decade the percentage of members who have never served in the forces is set to overtake those that have. The charity's constituency of beneficiaries is also expected to fall from 13 million to 8.75 million by 2010.

Townsend knew that drastic action was needed to keep the organisation's status as the leading ex-service charity.

"The Legion turns over £60m per year, and we need to recognise that while we are not a business, we need to be run in a businesslike way," he says.

However, the changes have not come easily.

"I have found charities less easy to turn around and refocus than businesses," he says. "It takes longer because of the need for wider consultation. There are also a greater number of potential pitfalls - and there is always complex charity law to contend with."

Nevertheless, Townsend has not been put off by the enormity of the task.

In 2001, he finalised a ten-year strategic framework outlining a raft of modernising changes, and, in 2002, he launched a massive membership review. The Legion is now in the transitional phase of a modernisation programme known as 'Taking the Legion forward', which aims to recruit new supporters, improve member services and educate the public about the organisation. Controversially, this involves remodelling the Legion's infrastructure to separate the membership section from the charity and make the governance structure more accountable.

The process is a delicate one, not least because the Legion is a conservative organisation whose roots are deeply embedded in its history. However, more members are beginning to support the changes, and there is evidence that other aspects of the strategy are also coming together.

Perhaps the most noticeable success was the reinstatement of the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day. Over the years, the practice had largely lapsed and many commentators felt that it could never be restored. However, after a gentle and carefully crafted PR programme, schools, shops and offices across the land fell silent at 11am on 11 November 1999.

"When even the 11 o'clock Concorde is delayed by two minutes, you know that you've won," says Townsend.

Despite the successes, Townsend is staying resolutely focused on the overall picture.

"My biggest achievement will be when the reforms have taken place and made the Legion relevant to the 21st century," he says.

As he approaches his retirement in two years, Townsend refuses to let the pace slow:

"I want to leave the Royal British Legion secure in the knowledge that I have put in place the right building blocks for reform. If anything, the pace of implementation has to quicken - we must be careful not to miss the moment."

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