Liam Kay: The sector should take note of the RNLI's brave stance on tabloid criticism

The charity's robust stance when newspapers questioned its spending priorities should be applauded

Liam Kay
Liam Kay

For a charity that is used to riding out into storms and sailing through turbulent seas, this week has been very much business as usual for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The big difference is that the storm it faced wasn’t on the high seas, but instead within the tabloid media.

At the weekend, several newspapers ran stories about the RNLI’s spending on overseas projects, contrasting this with the recent loss of 135 jobs and a fall in income of £7.2m in the charity’s 2018 accounts.

The newspaper articles criticised the charity’s spending on projects such as crèches in Bangladesh and swimsuits for Muslim women in Tanzania.

For many charities, this would have been the opportunity to put out a bland statement acknowledging the controversy, while not committing to actually changing the charity’s work in the long term – or to be cowed into silence. But the RNLI decided to ride through the media storm and offer a more robust defence.

Taking to Twitter to defend itself, the RNLI pointed out that its overseas spending saves lives, prevents drowning and makes people feel comfortable swimming. And it does all this while costing the charity only 2 per cent of its annual income.

The lengthy statement said: "Providing the very best search-and-rescue service in the UK and Ireland remains our priority, but we are also proud to use our expertise, knowledge and influence to help others save lives across the world, particularly in countries where drowning rates are high."

And the reaction has been phenomenal. There has been a sharp increase in donations to the charity as people rally around the cause (and explicitly against the line taken by some in the media that the charity’s overseas spending was decadent when jobs were being cut in the UK). The general view online has been one of wholehearted support.

There are caveats. Some people have cancelled direct debits or reduced their donations. And it is not yet known if the new donations will continue in the long term to offset the loss of any established, regular donors. And, as we all know, a good reaction online doesn’t necessarily transfer into the real world.

There are also still some valid questions about the RNLI’s spending decisions, especially taking into account the loss of 135 jobs. The charity has to balance its provision of an emergency service along the UK’s coast – including many deprived coastal towns – with the outreach work it does elsewhere. And there is no question that there are plenty of members of the public – and RNLI donors – who wholeheartedly agree with the stance taken by the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun.

But the point is that the RNLI is confident enough with its strategy not just implement it, but also to come out fighting for it. There is bravery in a charity embracing its principles – namely to prevent drowning and to keep people safe at sea – and to sail on regardless rather than hunkering down and waiting for the media storm to pass.

Yes, some donations will have been lost, but surely there is a greater risk from the long-term consequences of cowering in the face of over-the-top tabloid criticism, and also of implicitly failing to carry out your charitable objectives in certain places because of the prejudices of a section of the public.

It’s especially heartening to see how the charity sector itself has rallied around. Over recent years there has been a lot of criticism – much of it valid – that the charity sector has been slow to respond to stories in the press and tin-eared to public sentiment. If you fail to defend yourself properly, is it any wonder that the public will accept newspaper vitriol as the truth? That is certainly not a criticism that could be levelled at the RNLI in this case.

The RNLI has been transparent and forthright, expressed its views clearly and confidently refused to back down. I have no doubt it will sail through this media storm intact. Calmer seas hopefully await. And other charities should take notice.

Liam Kay is a senior reporter at Third Sector

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