Peter Wilkinson, Seafarers UK

The chair of the maritime charity cut its trustees and administration costs. Interview by Claire Twyman

Peter Wilkinson
Peter Wilkinson

Peter Wilkinson, who became chair of the maritime charity Seafarers UK in September, knows a thing or two about running a tight ship. He is a former Royal Marine and says his priority is making sure donors' money is spent as effectively as possible.

"People want to see as much of their donation as possible going to the cause, whether they donate £1 or £1m," he says. "This is why it is a priority to drive administration costs down."

The charity, an umbrella organisation that gives grants to maritime charities, has cut its costs in part by reducing the number of trustees on its board. "It is a priority to make sure that trustees are employed appropriately," he says. "We now have the right people in the right positions."

He has also introduced a fixed-term, five-year contract for trustees, which he hopes will ensure stability.

One of Wilkinson's main aims since becoming chair has been to reduce the charity's use of its reserves and encourage it to generate more of its own funding. The organisation has had reserves since 1917, he says, but needs to be less reliant on them.

He says Seafarers UK has £2.5m available to give out every year in grants, but receives applications for about £5m in funding every year.

The charity is attempting to make up the difference with a new, one-year fundraising campaign, launched by the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace last month, which it is hoped will raise £2m. This publicity is sure to help, says Wilkinson, as will the fact that Prince Philip has been president of the charity since 1979.

We are lucky to have him on board," says Wilkinson. "It is important to have a figurehead with a national reputation. We do not want somebody who is just a name on a letterhead, as previous celebrities have been."

The charity has also taken on a fundraising trustee who will promote its cause through social media. The charity plans to shoot video recordings of interviews with senior staff in the hope that the media will publish them on their websites.

Wilkinson says the charity will also carry on raising funds by working with its various partners.

"We visit the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo each year, and Fuller's brewery sells Seafarers Ale, from which we receive some profit," he says. "We are also looking to increase corporate sponsorship in 2012."

Wilkinson is keen to stress that Seafarers UK does not receive any government funding, and points out that this is the case for the majority of charities. He warns, however, that the loss of government grants to those charities that are publicly funded will make life more difficult for those that are not. "If grants are withdrawn, charities that do not get government funding might not be able to make up for the shortfall caused by cuts to those that do," he says.

Wilkinson sees Seafarers UK as the perfect example of what the government is expecting from its big society agenda. "We have been holding coffee mornings and bring-and-buy sales for years," he says. "In a way, we are the pathfinders for the big society."

He is not, however, a cheerleader for the government's agenda. "The fact that the government has talked about the importance of charities so much will make it very difficult for it to break bad news to the sector," he adds.

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