Ex-submariner Paul Boissier wants more stability in the RNLI's finances

Poorly performing investments have reduced the emergency rescue charity's once-mighty reserves

Paul Boissier
Paul Boissier

Paul Boissier has been chief executive of the RNLI for only seven months, but is already weary of hearing the charity described as rich.

It's an old charge and one that doesn't appear to be without foundation: last year, the RNLI overtook the NSPCC to become Britain's third-largest fundraising charity, and its latest accounts show it generated £170m for the year to 31 December 2008 - £16m more than the previous year.

But Boissier, a former Cold War submariner and Royal Navy chief operating officer, says this isn't the full or the most recent picture.

"It doesn't feel rich where I am," he says. "If there has been growth, I'd be surprised if it continued."

Boissier says he is "spending more time with the fundraising team than expected" and "having a really good look at where we can shave costs".

He feels this could have staffing implications. "We're looking at using more volunteers instead of paid employees as gaps appear," says Boissier, who replaced Andrew Freemantle.

"We're not alone here. A lot of charities are looking at how they can spend more of their donors' money on delivering services."

Investments are the main financial concern. Their value plummeted by £60.3m in 2008, which has had a serious impact on the charity's reserves: they were worth £200m in 2000 but now total £85m.

The size of its reserves has long been a touchy subject at the RNLI. It once aimed to keep between one and three years' worth, which provoked criticism that it was hoarding money and contributed to its rich image.

Boissier says it now aims to hold back enough to survive for between nine and fifteen months. It currently has eight months' funding in reserve.

"Eight months is not an awful lot to run a 365-days-a-year emergency service - so, yes, I'm concerned," he says. "But I suspect we are probably at the bottom. Investments fell a lot 18 months ago but have stabilised since."

This is Boissier's first voluntary sector job. Having seen the value of unpaid trustees, he wishes he'd got into charity governance sooner.

With his naval background, he is aware of the RNLI's traditions and plans to maintain its policy of not accepting central government funding. But his thoughts do not stray far from funding. "If I could leave nothing else as my legacy than a greater stability in the level of reserves, I would be happy with that," he says.

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