Craig Dearden-Phillips: The RSPCA is turning into a dog's dinner

Our columnist offers some stern advice to the animal welfare charity after the loss of another chief executive

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Another day, another charity governance disaster.

This time it isn't about an outlandish founder and a lapdog chair but one of Britain's best loved brands: the animal charity the RSPCA.

In case you haven't been watching the news, the RSPCA has just parted with its third chief executive in the past five years. The official line is that Jeremy Cooper has moved on to pursue other business opportunities, but there is a great deal of speculation that there has been another major bust-up among trustees.

Seeing the RSPCA splashed over the media is a bit like seeing your old school teacher in the paper for shoplifting: it shouldn't happen and you feel oddly ashamed.

Although I advise charities for a living, this is one gig I don't think I am going to get. So what words of truth need to be said to the trustees responsible for the RSPCA?

The first thing to say is "stop!" You are killing a fantastic charity brand. The RSPCA is a byword for the solidly respectable, boring-but-competent wing of the sector. It is the Marks & Spencer and the BT of the charity world. Everyone goes there because they are trusted. 

Yes, you are dull, but we know you and generations of Britons love you because we are nuts about animals. All of us have put coins in your plastic dogs as kids. Like those plastic dogs, you are solid.

When things go wrong at the RSPCA, it makes you wonder what the hell might be going on everywhere else. This spells trouble for the third sector as a whole. The RSPCA being in the newspapers is, in reality, all of us in the newspapers. We all look as rubbish, as you do right now. I am sorry, but this just isn't on.

The second thing to say to say to the trustees is that you should remember what's at stake here. Your organisation has tens of thousands of members and an annual income of more than £140m. Generations of Britons love you because they love animals.

Now, I understand that there are big differences among you about how to make this mission real. But show me a board without such disagreements. Public feuds put at risk the very organisation to which you all wish to lay claim.

Carry on as you are and there will be no RSPCA. All the money will migrate to better-run animal charities.

This brings me to my third message: sort out your governance. You allow up to 25 people on your board, but that’s about 15 too many. The most effective charities have been shrinking and modernising their boards for 20 years now.

Nothing can move forward in the RSPCA with the cacophony that your board meetings must generate. If nothing else, can you not agree to reform your board in pretty short order?

And if you want to find a decent new chief executive, you had better be sharp about it. Nobody will want the attractive salary if they think it might be the last job they do.

I hope this free advice is ringing in your ears, trustees. You deserve to hear it because, unlike most charities, you have had the comfort of assured income and a bullet-proof brand to give you cover to indulge in the kind of damaging infighting that has landed you on the Radio 4 news.

Perhaps now you will smell the coffee before it's too late for the RSPCA.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives

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