The town of Malton, just south of the Howardian Hills and near the mediaeval city of York, is a surprising location for the headquarters of a national charity. The picturesque North Yorkshire market town is a world away from the hubbub of London, where the vast majority of national charities are headquartered.
The Encephalitis Society has been based on one of the main streets in Malton for 20 years. For many charities trapped in the London metropolis, Malton would appear a cheap, cheerful and calm alternative to the hustle and bustle of the city.
Dr Ava Easton, chief executive of the Encephalitis Society, says that for many staff living near Malton is considerably nicer than living in or near London. Staff are not crammed onto the Tube or commuter trains, there are no rail strikes and crowded streets, and there is no long standstill on the M25 to reckon with.
There is also the opportunity for a connection to the local community, and the chance for a charity to benefit both its beneficiaries and the area in which it is based.
If there is an opportunity to have more to spend on your charitable activities, that has to be a good thingDr Ava Easton, chief executive, Encephalitis Society
"I am proud that we contribute to our local economy, because good people exist outside the city, as much as I love London," Easton says. "Malton is in a rural area, and we need to invest in our rural communities or they will just disintegrate."
The advent of video-conferencing technology such as Skype and Zoom has made communication much easier, and Malton’s proximity to York means that London can be reached in just over two hours. When Easton does need to visit London, she stays at the Royal Society of Medicine, where she is a member, and bunches meetings into a day or two, meaning there is little need for continuous commuting to the capital. "We’re a charity doing international work and this job takes me all over the world," Easton says.
"I don’t drive a car and I get around the world perfectly well. Have I ever been late for a meeting? No. I think it’s about forward planning."
Staff recruitment has been tricky sometimes, but Easton is adamant that skilled
people can be found in rural areas. In fact, she fears losing staff should the charity relocate to York or Leeds, let alone London.
Renting premises in Malton is considerably cheaper too. It costs the Encephalitis Society £16,000 a year for its headquarters. For that price, the charity gets 1,238sqft, which comprises offices with room for its entire staff, kitchen and reception areas, full disabled access and a bespoke boardroom. A similar-sized premises in central London would cost about £148,560 a year, according to estimates from the commercial estate agents Colliers International (see table, above). The Encephalitis Society also benefits from having 100 per cent business rates relief and the charity is even able to earn a little extra income from renting its boardroom out to the local community. This means more money can be funnelled towards the cause. And when the public is increasingly critical of non-front-line spending by charities, savings on office costs are especially welcome.
"I am mindful of how hard it is to bring money into our sector these days, and
negative press," Easton says. "So if there is an opportunity to reduce your overheads and have more to spend on your charitable activities, that has to be a good thing."
Antonia Swinson, chief executive of the Ethical Property Foundation, says that charities should consider the consequences for staff, travel costs and public transport availability, rents and property prices when deciding to relocate. Many of her clients decide to downsize within London, she says, using Cloud technology and flexible working practices to help.
Leaving the London rat race does not have to mean a move north. The RSPB has been based at Sandy, Bedfordshire, since 1961 and has no plans to return to London. Shaun Thomas, director of operations, says that having the headquarters based at a nature reserve deep in the countryside has a symbolic benefit for the charity.
"There is something there about its consistency with our brand, ethos and what we are trying to do," he says. Thomas also questions whether being in London necessarily means getting the most talented staff, and points out that charities in the capital are in competition with private and public sector employers that can afford larger pay packets. Instead, people are drawn to Sandy by the RSPB itself.
"Like most charities, we don’t pay as much when there’s a commercial comparator," he says. "But what we do find is that very often people join because of a sense of commitment to the cause and a sense of doing something worthwhile."
There are some downsides to being based in rural areas. For example, public transport is often infrequent, mobile phone signals can be patchy and there may well be fewer amenities nearby.
But Thomas says that many staff get physical and mental health benefits from living in the countryside, as well as the sense of belonging that comes with being in smaller communities.
For a national charity such as the RSPB, which operates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England, being based in Sandy helps it to stake its claim as a truly national charity.
"It is probably more appropriate for us to have that symbolic headquarters in somewhere that is not necessarily in south-east England, and in our case being in a beautiful, nature-rich setting," Thomas says.
"It is about being as relevant to as many people as we can in the UK and beyond. I think having an identity that isn’t just a London one is good."