Charities in action: Donkey Work

It may appear to be a gentle, rural charity, but the Donkey Sanctuary's savvy operation has an annual turnover of £20m and its work reaches as far as India and Mexico.

The Donkey Sanctuary is hemmed in by the sea on one side and fields on the other. Its secluded location high on the coast near Sidmouth in Devon seems appropriate for a charity that appears to exist in splendid isolation from the rest of the voluntary sector.

Charity folk don't know whether to sneer at the sanctuary or turn green at its success. The organisation, founded by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen in 1969, has just broken the £20m annual income barrier for the first time, making it the eighth largest animal charity in the UK. It's a remarkable achievement, yet the fact that 73 per cent of its income derives from legacies often provokes mirth rather than admiration among those who can't fall back on a pair of floppy ears to sell their cause.

Richard Radcliffe, a consultant at legacy experts Smee and Ford, describes the 73 per cent figure as the best in the voluntary sector. "Donkey sanctuaries have always been the highest legacy performers," he says. "It's donkeys first, then cats, then dogs, although I believe there was once a millionaire tortoise." At this, he descends into a fit of giggles. It seems nobody can take the poor donkeys seriously.

At the sanctuary's head office in Sidmouth, however, it's all about the donkeys. From the donkey statues that greet you in the car park to the 400 real ones on site, there is a sense of man's subordination to mule.

Visitors are welcome to mingle with the animals every day of the year free of charge, and even on the bleakest days people turn out in force.

When they don't, a webcam in a barn for elderly equine residents enables supporters to get their donkey fix through the sanctuary's website. Donkeys live into their fifties, and some have been here since the sanctuary registered as a charity in 1973.

Large plaques on the barn walls bear the names of the thousands of Ediths and Dorothies who laid down not their lives but their legacies for the cause. Each year a new plaque is added and, at a memorial service in early October on or near the feast of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the local vicar reads out the names of every legator.

To those who don't love donkeys, the adoration verges on the disturbing.

But for the charity's supporters, this is equine heaven. "Here, the donkeys come first, second and third," says Svendsen, 77, soon-to-be retiring chief executive of the charity. But why? "Donkeys are humble," she says.

"They never ask for anything, yet they are always derided."

Svendsen, or Dr S as she is known, has been the face, heart and soul of the charity for so long it is difficult to imagine it without her.

Since saving her first donkey, called Naughty Face, her organisation has rescued 12,000 more and she has picked up an MBE and an honorary doctorate along the way. But after suffering two strokes last year, she is stepping down.

And there is no shortage of people wanting to take over her role. No fewer than 110 people applied for the £90,000-a-year post. Is it the lure of the donkeys or the richest seam of legacy income in the voluntary sector that appeals to them?

For Svendsen, an unashamedly sentimental animal lover, it can only be the former. It seems unthinkable to her that anyone could put ruthless professional ambition ahead of a passion for donkeys.

Being an animal lover is a prerequisite for a job at the sanctuary. Svendsen constantly refers to her staff as "one big family" and regards supporters as extended family. Keeping them all happy keeps the donkeys happy, not to mention the finance director. "We reply to everyone who writes to us within a week, even if they just send us a small amount of money," she says. "They want to know their donation has arrived safely and will be used properly.

"When staff join, we tell them it's not just a job; it's a job for life. It hurts the donkeys when staff move on, so we spoil them: we have a long-term bonus scheme, and we send flowers if they're ill, or I visit them."

The family description isn't just an analogy. Svendsen's son, Paul, runs the charity's operations in Spain and her granddaughter, Dawn Vincent, is the public relations officer. Paul is among the applicants for the chief executive's job and Svendsen is keen to stress that the trustees, not mum, will decide whether or not he is selected.

Whoever is chosen will need considerable management skill to complement their empathy for animals. The sanctuary is now a vast multinational, multimillion-pound organisation that belies its quaint, homely image.

It owns 10 farms covering 1,400 acres in Sidmouth, including the head office-cum-visitor centre, where 250 staff work and mingle with supporters.

Another 100 employees are scattered in faraway places such as India, Kenya and Mexico, as well as many European countries.

Besides caring for neglected donkeys, the sanctuary is at the forefront of promoting welfare. It set up a charter mark for beach donkeys so that they now get regular health checks, created a donkey derby code of practice and established a network of welfare officers to investigate claims of mistreatment. The officers also train RSPCA staff on specialist donkey issues.

Then there is the riding school, veterinary clinic and gift shop - not to mention the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust, a separate charity based alongside the sanctuary that gives free donkey rides to special needs children.

So the sanctuary is not just a few nags in a field; it is one of the biggest beasts in the animal charity kingdom and is extremely popular with the public, although it has been bereft of celebrity supporters since the death of Thora Hird in 2003.

For all the sanctuary's success, Svendsen still regards 'commercial' as a dirty word. "I've always had a slightly different view on how charities should be run," she says. "I've had a lot of criticism for not charging people to visit the sanctuary, but people who give us money should be able to visit any time of day or night to see where their money goes."

Her old-fashioned belief in the purity of the charity brand means she won't accept the government shilling for any of the sanctuary's work.

"It's dangerous for people to rely on their local councils for fundraising," she says. "If you rely on grants, voluntary things get dropped the minute belts start tightening. They will still have to sweep the roads. Charities really ought to build up their own fundraising so they are immune to political problems."

This seems easy to say when you receive about £15m a year from wills.

But Svendsen dismisses the idea that a popular cause automatically translates into easy money. "There were donkey charities before us that haven't done so well, so maybe the sanctuary does have something special."

Although the charity's 180,000 supporters may see the magic, Svendsen is well aware that other charities "see us as different". Does it bother her? "I just say 'do you know what work we do?' Giving donkeys an extra five years of life makes a huge difference to the life of a peasant in Ethiopia, where the average life of a donkey is just nine years," she says. "Without donkeys, they can't get to the market - they are totally reliant on them. To lose one could cost them a year's salary."

Legacies have dominated the charity's accounts for so long that the directors are relaxed about it, but the sanctuary also has a 12-strong fundraising team to diversify its activities. "It's difficult to be concerned about something that has been such a success," says finance director John Carroll.

Carroll joined the sanctuary in 1997 from Guide Dogs. Before that he spent 30 years in industry and commerce. Working in such a beautiful setting, in a charity with clear fundraising skies, seems like one of the more agreeable senior roles in the voluntary sector. But the sanctuary's rapid growth has not been without problems.

A decade ago, the organisation turned over about a third of the amount it does today. "Back then, we didn't have any need for investments," says Carroll. "The only funds we maintained were liquid accounts. Over the subsequent five or six years we started to maintain reserves at a set level and came up with ideas on how to invest it."

The charity dabbled in the stock market just as the FTSE boom was coming to an end. "We were a casualty of timing," says Carroll. "We put a couple of million in investment funds, and within six months the dotcom crash happened. We lost 25 per cent."

Happily, the charity's finances have recovered. Despite getting its fingers burned, the sanctuary realised it was too big to go back to stockpiling money in the bank. "We felt it was essential that we formalised our investment advice, so we recruited a fund manager," says Carroll.

But with success comes sniping. "People say 'they get £20m, they are wealthy, the donkeys must be having saunas'," Carroll says. "But when we explain the full picture of what we do, there is less criticism." Like Svendsen, he thinks people underestimate the scope of the charity's work.

"People who make these comments think we just have a few donkeys and get fat on the money," he says. "They don't realise we are expanding overseas. They're unaware of the wider aspects of the charity.

"People say 'why do people give to donkeys when there are things like children and cancer?' We can't really respond to that. Everyone gives to whatever they wish to. People who give to us have a fond experience of animals. All we can do is make sure that when people give to us we administer it properly.

"There is an element of jealousy, but the onus is on us to get the message over that we are an international charity now."

At the end of the day, the donkeys huddle in their barns and visitors say their goodbyes. Svendsen will say her own farewell soon, although she will stay on in a part-time capacity, writing the charity newsletter.

Her articles are likely to be more syrupy than sabre-rattling. But for all her talk of happy families and anti-commercialism, and her granny-like charm, Dr S has a sharp mind and has created one of the most powerful brands in the voluntary sector. They may like to play the simple country bumpkins, but the sanctuary is more savvy than it lets on.

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