Cathy Dean interview: ‘Having the rug pulled from under our feet was scary’

The chief executive of Save the Rhino International tells Rebecca Cooney how the charity achieved a record-breaking fundraising year, despite losing major income streams to the pandemic

Cathy Dean feeds MeiMei the baby rhino
Cathy Dean feeds MeiMei the baby rhino

In early March 2020, the trustees of Save the Rhino International sat down to sign off the charity’s budget. 

At the time, Cathy Dean, the charity’s chief executive, says: “Covid-19 was something that was happening elsewhere.” 

Ten days later, it became clear that the budget was already out of date. 

The charity, which funds rhino conservation projects across Africa and parts of Asia, relies heavily on fundraising events – including marathons and ultramarathons run by supporters in the charity’s distinctive rhinoceros costumes – to bolster its income, particularly unrestricted funding. 

With the London Marathon shelved and other events looking uncertain, Save the Rhino quickly realised it was going to have to scale back its ambitions. 

“You can normally rely on these events or fundraising activities that happen every year – and to have that rug pulled from under our feet was really quite scary,” says Dean.

“On the first of April we always start with £0 in the bank account, effectively, because so few of our grants are multi-year, and you think: ‘Where the hell is it going to come from this year?’”

A record-breaking year

The previous financial year, up to 31 March 2020, was a record one for the charity, which brought in £3.6m and spent £2.6m on grants to fund conservation projects. 

Fearing that almost all of its income streams would be affected by the crisis, the trustees hurriedly revised the budget, setting out much more sombre expectations for the year ahead. 

“Our aim for the coming year is to be able to make grants worth at least £1.5m while staying solvent and not dipping into our reserves,” its annual report for 2019/20, filed in December, said. 

But despite the gloomy forecast, the charity not only matched the previous year’s income, it exceeded it; setting a new record of £4.25m in fundraised income, which allowed it to give out £4.3m in grants. 

Dean describes the charity’s results as “extraordinary”. 

She says: “Every single stream was more than we’d bargained for, with the exception of the the cancelled marathons and Ride London events, Gift Aid, and merchandise – because in the first lockdown a lot of the stock was shipped to our offices, which we couldn’t access, and normally we sell a lot at physical events or lectures.”

The charity was helped by the fact that it had invested in a lot of “back-of-house” systems to integrate and manage online transactions and donor relationships, she says. Cancelled events meant some cost savings as well.

Much of the charity’s boost in income was down to the success of its fundraising from trusts and foundations, particularly personal foundations run by high net worth individuals. 

“Previous donors came back and gave to us, and they were aware that Covid-19 was hitting us really hard – it’s incredibly cheering and heartwarming to see how they came through for us,” says Dean. 

The reason for this generosity, she believes, is that the nine-strong staff team prioritises friendliness alongside professionalism when dealing with supporters. 

“We really try to get to know our donors – for example, with trusts and foundations, we are the bridge between people with money [and] the projects that need funding,” Dean says. 

“Not everyone can get out to find these projects on the ground in Indonesia or Kenya, so we have to be that intermediary for them. 

“It’s about talking to people as individuals – you can do segmenting and create profiles around how they like to receive information, but you also have to remember that your supporters and donors are people.”

This ethos, Dean says, applies to all supporters, from marathon runners to people donating £500,000 through their personal foundations. 

“We have 50 or 60 people running the London Marathon every year and we know them pretty well by the time they cross the finish line – we know where they have come from, what training injuries they’ve had, and who will be there to support them on the day.”

Similarly, with major donors, she says, “the formal reports are important, but there are also friendly WhatsApp chats where we talk about holidays and family and so on. Each of us within the organisation have 15 or 20 relationships like that." 

Many of these conversations inspired people to give more than they had initially planned, or to offer match-funding challenges, which donors felt they had been given the chance to design. 

Telling different stories 

Alongside fundraising difficulties, the pandemic presented particular challenges for conservation. 

Less travel means fewer tourists, cutting off a major source of income for many rhino projects, and rangers are having to spend longer on duty at remote locations to minimise travel and reduce the risk of virus transmission.

While some online training has been possible, much of it needs to be done face-to-face. 

But Covid-19 also created opportunities, Dean says. She arrived at the charity 20 years ago this year, and has seen shifts in the way the public view its cause area. 

“When I joined in 2001, the previous rhino-poaching crisis was over and it was more about finding new land for expanding rhino populations,” she says. 

“Then the current poaching crisis started in 2008, spreading from Zimbabwe to South Africa. 

“At that point we had an uptick in donations because it was in the news heavily and we’d raised our profile generally – around 2012 and 2013 it felt like I was on TV news once a month.”

But as the poaching crisis continued with no sign of abating, Dean says it became “a bit like crying wolf – you can’t keep reporting on the same thing”. Unless a poaching incident was particularly macabre or a ranger had been attacked, it was increasingly difficult to get public attention.

“Like it or not, we are competing with other charitable causes. People have other priorities, whether it’s children or cancer; [poaching is] a very small part of the charitable field, so we have to try lots of different tactics to keep conservation at the forefront,” she says. 

“In a weird way – and I wish it hadn’t been like this – Covid-19 and the impact on the field programmes meant that we had to tell a different story, which has been about how the tourist income has been devastated.”

The charity has grown over the past 20 years from an organisation employing four people with an annual income of £400,000 to one of nine people raising more than £4m. 

Running towards the future

As Save the Rhino enjoys the fruits of the past year’s labour, Dean is beginning to look towards the future – particularly the return of marathons, which she has always been personally involved in. 

“Before I joined Save the Rhino, I’d never even watched the London Marathon, but when I came for an interview, two of the trustees mentioned they were training for a six-day marathon and I was so impressed that they weren’t just turning up for quarterly board meetings,” she says. 

“And then I saw how much money the marathon raised each year and I thought I’d better have a go, because I have a personal motto that you can’t ask other people to do things you’re not willing to do yourself – whether that’s stuffing envelopes for mailings or marathons.”

In 2002, the year after joining, she ran the London Marathon and in 2003 went on to complete the Marathon des Sables ultramarathon – effectively a marathon a day for six days through the Moroccan portion of the Sahara Desert. 

Since then she has completed another seven marathons and two ultramarathons.

“I still don’t love running,” she admits. “But completing a marathon is the best feeling of your life because you think: ‘Wow, I’ve done something I thought I would never be able to do.’” 

Even when she’s not competing, Dean says, London Marathon day is her favourite day of the year, and she is looking forward to the rescheduled event in October.

“We’re there at the start to wave everyone off, and then it’s back to my kitchen to make sandwiches for everyone, and then we’re there at the finish,” she says. 

“Getting to know our supporters is what makes the job so much fun – you get to see someone do something really tough, really amazing, and blow their own expectations away. 

“And then at the end, there are big sweaty hugs – God I hope that’s going to be allowed.

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