Even before Covid-19 took hold, a number of charities were looking to diversify their income streams away from a reliance on traditional fundraising methods, as some fundraisers warned the public appetite for direct debits and voluntary donations was beginning to dry up.
In a financially challenging landscape, one option for charities exploring new ways to bring in cash is to harness assets they already have. The most obvious example is capital assets. Many organisations offer out their meeting rooms in their offices for hire, for example, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has taken this a step further.
But in a world where people are seeking a more direct connection and involvement with the causes they support, there are also less tangible assets that can be harnessed. More often than not, charities are experts in the fields in which they operate, and have networks and knowledge at their fingertips that span any number of niche areas.
Mobilised in the right way, these tools could forge new income streams and promote awareness and understanding of the charity, as three organisations that have put their assets to work have discovered.
Bunk and berth
The RNLI College, a state-of-the-art training centre at the charity’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset, opened in 2004, at a cost of £25m. The building houses a training pool, a lifeboat simulator and seminar rooms to help prepare volunteer crews to save lives at sea.
“Having made a sizeable capital investment in the organisation and in our lifesaving capability, it made sense to ensure we were optimising it even after the training needs for the organisation had been fulfilled,” says James Dumas, the charity’s head of commercial development.
The college boasts 60 nautical-themed rooms to provide accommodation for trainees, as well as a restaurant overlooking Poole harbour. When they’re not being used by volunteers, these rooms can be rented out as hotel rooms, with all of the income generated being put towards the organisation’s equipment, training and support.
The college also hosts about 40 weddings a year, as well as other private events, and turned a profit of £8.6m in the charity’s last financial year.
“It’s been extremely successful in financial terms, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story,” says Dumas.
“The real success has probably been creating a direct and tangible link, where the public can come to Poole and experience the organisation and interact with crews and learn from volunteers’ experiences.
“It creates not just the opportunity for an immediate transaction, but starts a journey that can be part of supporter acquisition for the organisation moving forward.”
Designing for dignity
Even if your organisation doesn’t happen to have a spare hotel or building knocking around, it may still have assets that can be exploited.
Versus Arthritis was formed by the merger of Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care in 2017, combining expertise in medical research with expertise in caring for people living with the joint condition.
Now the charity is harnessing this blend of knowledge in order to generate income at the same time as making life better for the people it supports.
In October it will launch Arthr, a separate company wholly owned by the charity, which will use the charity’s expertise and patient network to create beautifully designed household products to help those with arthritis.
The idea, says Bobby Watkins, Arthr’s managing director, is that the products will be “an extension of the furniture of people’s homes” rather than the ugly, medicalised products that are currently available, to “reinforce dignity and happiness while providing solutions”.
The company will both design its own products and showcase other products it believes are effective, and is aiming to make them available to mainstream retailers.
Arthr was established in March, and once fully operational will plough all profits back into designing new products or into the charity itself.
Watkins says the company has “ambitious” plans in terms of the amount of money it hopes to generate, but is tight-lipped when it comes to the specifics.
Brake, the cycling safety charity, focuses much of its campaigning and education work on commercial vehicles and fleets.
One of its projects, Global Fleet Champions, is a free membership scheme offering fleet managers and drivers access to resources to help them increase road and driving safety.
The charity has become a known and respected name in the industry, developing a strong relationship with the fleet managers it works with – and it’s a relationship that generates income.
The webinars and conferences, delivered through Global Fleet Champions, are sponsored by companies that are keen to be associated with Brake and to reach its audience.
“Some of the companies don’t worry too much about the financial side – they’re just happy to align themselves with what they see as a very worthy cause,” says Ross Moorlock, chief operating officer at Brake.
“But some companies are working with us because of the commercial benefits – it’s not coming from their CSR budget, it’s coming from their business development budget, and they want and expect to see a commercial return for the money they give us.”
The strategy has been a strong part of the charity’s income mix for many years, and it expects to increase it over the coming years.
Part of the challenge, Moorlock says, has been to ensure the charity stays focused on its mission, and it has ruled out endorsing specific products in order to avoid giving the impression that the charity’s logo can be “bought”.
Start with the people
So, what advice would these three organisations offer to charities looking to find income streams hiding in plain sight?
Brake’s Moorlock suggests that it would be worth speaking to “friendly contacts” operating in the same area, who might be able to help you work out where the biggest opportunity lies for your organisation.
And, he says, once you have identified something that can be a competitive offer, make sure that you invest in the right team, and give them the resources, skill and infrastructure to deliver it.
Watkins at Arthr agrees – but warns against trying to do everything yourself. Arthr, for example, will work with an online retailer to handle the distribution and delivery of its products to customers.
The key to a successful project, he adds, is to start by building the venture “from the people you want to serve backwards”.
For Dumas, the question of how charities should go about introducing a commercial offer to a charitable asset depends on how it is currently being used, and what the strategic vision for the organisation is.
Hotel rooms, fine dining and weddings aside, the RNLI College remains a resource that is primarily dedicated to its volunteers, and keeping this principle front and centre has been key to its success.
“We get to share our mission, and hopefully gain people’s support to allow us to continue it,” Dumas says.