The quiet revolutionary

Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive, RNIB on combining with other sight-loss charities for a 'coherent strategy'.

Alexander: RNIB is combining with other sight-loss charities (credit: Newscast)
Alexander: RNIB is combining with other sight-loss charities (credit: Newscast)

Lesley-Anne Alexander does not have a reputation for being the most outspoken of the top 100 charities' chief executives. If anything, she has rather hidden her light under a bushel during three outwardly unspectacular years at the RNIB. But opinions might soon need to be revised.

"There is a hearts and minds exercise to be done within our own sector," she says. "I'm horrified at the amount of bickering and positioning and politicking that goes on. I'm not going to collude with that."

In place of strife and competition, Alexander is calling for "a coherent strategy for the sight-loss sector". That aspiration will start to become reality in April, when the RNIB, Action for Blind People, Guide Dogs and Vision 2020 launch a nine-month consultation exercise to develop a national vision strategy that will encompass optometrists, high street opticians, the Department of Health, talking newspapers, national charities and local societies for the blind. The strategy will seek to identify a message for the whole sector.

This process is a "huge aspiration", she believes, especially for inward-facing national charities. "We need to make the UK a better place for blind and partially sighted people," she says. "We have the brains and the resources to do it. But we waste resources in our sector on duplication because of egos, and we need to make sure that we have the needs of blind and partially sighted people in focus, rather than our own."

If such strident views have not reverberated around the sector until now, it is perhaps because Alexander has been busy carrying out a minor internal revolution at the RNIB head office in London's King's Cross.

When she took over, the charity was a venerable institution in need of repair. It had run at a deficit and was shedding jobs. "We faced some tough financial times," she says. "We've managed to reorganise how we manage our money."

She broke with convention by replacing one-year with three-year budgets to "give consistency to service users and show them we're in it for the long term". An internal investment fund, currently standing at £6m, was set up to keep fundraising surpluses in reserve for innovative projects. "Any manager within the organisation can bid to that fund to make a step change in the outcomes of their business plan," she says.

Alexander is also changing the RNIB's public face. Its name will change from the Royal National Institute of the Blind to the Royal National Institute of Blind People this summer. "The existing name is great, but it does narrow what people think of us," she says. "We've done market research with our members, and some of the criticism we had is that we've been a bit aloof. We want to make sure people understand that we're here for them." The organisation's strapline will also change to 'Supporting blind and partially sighted people', and its 'man with stick' logo will be ditched for a leaf design.

Such a reforming mindset, together with a partnership-driven approach and an aversion to duplication, seems to mark Alexander out as a moderniser.

But on the most defining question of the age for charities - the public services debate - she is a traditionalist. She is proud of the fact that less than 40 per cent of the RNIB's income comes from government contracts.

"I don't want the RNIB to become an agent of the state," she insists.

Instead, she envisages the charity as a pioneer of services that are then adopted by others. "I don't want us to become a monopoly provider of services," she says. "I don't want us to be the predominant market force. I want us to be the change agent."

Alexander CV

2004: Chief executive, RNIB
1998: Director of operations, Peabody Trust
1997: Director of housing, London Borough of Enfield

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