Interview: Mike Clarke, chief executive, RSPB

The charity's new leader tells John Plummer his priorities are spending cuts and responding to the big society agenda

Mike Clarke, chief executive, the RSPB
Mike Clarke, chief executive, the RSPB

The fact that public spending cuts top the list of concerns for the new chief executive of the RSPB indicates how entwined the voluntary sector's fortunes have become with those of the government.

The bird and wildlife charity gets £88m of its £112m annual income from individual donations, so if ever a charity was to be spared from Whitehall's axe, surely it was this one.

But Mike Clarke, who succeeds Sir Graham Wynne, says spending cuts and responding to the Tories' big society are his main priorities. Only 10 per cent of RSPB funding comes from government contracts, he says, but that would be a significant loss in these straitened times, particularly when some is match-funded. "Taking away one of the props of our income will undermine much of the delivery of our work," he says.

Possible changes to Gift Aid and the end of transitional relief are other Whitehall decisions with potentially multimillion pound consequences. Any sudden changes would pose a particular challenge for the RSPB, which has a long-standing policy of maintaining reserves sufficient for the charity to continue for only eight or nine weeks.

"When people donate, we aim to spend their money immediately," says Clarke. "It's a policy that has served us well, but it means we don't have bottomless coffers that could swallow up big government cuts."

The Bedfordshire-based charity is a much bigger beast than the one Clarke joined as a conservation officer in 1988, when it had 400,000 members. Membership is now a million, with 2,000 staff and 13,500 volunteers.

His association with the RSPB goes back to 1974 when he became a youth member while still at school. He has a PhD on the ecology of New Forest wetlands and he worked for the Nature Conservancy Council before joining the RSPB.

Clarke, who became the charity's regional director in 1991 and director of operations in 1998, has pledged to make greater use of what he calls "more personal and personable" methods of recruiting supporters - using new media and face-to-face fundraising, for example, and relying less on direct mail.

But as the RSPB prepares to enter another strategic planning cycle, Clarke's eye will be fixed on Westminster as well as on his own organisation.

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