Peter Stanford: Protect your most valuable asset - your good reputation

It's no surprise that the RNLI's name is well-respected, our columnist says

There was a bit too much rain and rough sea on the north coast of Norfolk where I spent part of August. As a result, the beach at Wells-next-the-Sea wasn't quite the holiday playground I had anticipated.

While the multi-coloured beach huts were getting nature's equivalent of a car wash, I found myself taking shelter with my children under the eaves of the modern red and yellow lifeboat station that sits between beach and harbour.

Though I cursed the storm clouds, they turned out to have a silver lining. If we were lucky and they weren't busy, the lifeboatmen and women would open up the doors and let us in to look around their vessel and the walls of the station, covered with pictures and cuttings about their heroism over the years. If we were especially blessed, they would come and talk to us about their work.

It is an awe-inspiring tale, simply and unassumingly told. In many ways, it is also a counter-cultural one.

In an age when everything has a price, when the constant imperative to amass houses, cars and consumer durables risks making us ever more selfish and narrowly focused, here is an organisation that relies on volunteers prepared to risk their lives to save others who find themselves in peril.

One statistic sticks in my mind: in 2009, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution rescued an average of 22 people a day.

No wonder that a recent survey of UK-based organisations, commissioned by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, gave the RNLI the highest score ever recorded in terms of its public reputation.

Here is a charity doing something that many assume - wrongly - is done by the government. Moreover, the RNLI does it with professionalism, very little fuss and a good deal of volunteer effort.

A charity's most precious asset is its good name. The very high esteem in which the RNLI is held by the public is a tribute to the stewardship of its trustees and an example to the rest of us of how to secure the long-term good health of our own charities. Get the public behind you, and then do nothing that endangers that support.

'Reputation management' has, I am told, been acknowledged as a science in its own right, and there are certainly organisations, in public relations and elsewhere, that regularly pitch to well-known charities on the basis that they can help protect and enhance their good name.

The temptation is there for trustees to hand the task over to the professionals - whether it be the charity's staff or outside consultants. But we need to stop to consider our own particular responsibilities in this regard.

One of the strengths of a trustee body is that it will still be around when the latest hotshot chief executive, inspired bought-in help, dynamic fundraiser or celebrity endorser has moved on to pastures new.

We therefore need to be aware of our unique responsibility to take the long view, however pressing the short-term crises and opportunities. It has, after all, taken the RNLI 186 years to build up its current bank of public goodwill - that and the estimated 139,000 lives it has saved since it began in 1824.

Should 'reputation management' be on every trustee agenda? That might be pushing the boat out a bit too far because it risks separating it from the day-to-day and year-by-year planning and operation of a charity.

Everything we do now and in the future has a potential impact on our reputation. It also separates it from PR and the media, its natural shipmates - although not, it should be stressed, precisely the same thing.

What this survey result demonstrates is that we trustees need to keep a constant watch on our charity's reputation and be prepared, like those lifeboatmen and women, to take drastic steps if we see it in peril on the seas of public opinion.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chair of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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