Newsmaker: Green trustee - Fiona Reynolds director-general, National Trust

Indira Das-Gupta

Re-thinking its strategy for the 21st century.

Think of the National Trust and a vision of an old dear guiding visitors around a dusty stately home probably springs to mind. The charity's old London office reflected this image with its tasselled curtains and imposing entrance. But the trust is re-inventing itself, and nothing exemplifies this more than its new eco-friendly premises in Swindon.

The solar-powered, open-plan building, in which the bulk of the administrative staff now work, looks positively space-age by comparison, built according to sustainable principles to complement the charity's greener approach to nature conservation.

The woman spearheading all these changes is Fiona Reynolds, the trust's director-general.

"We have always known we are an important player in the nature conservation world, but we can't, and shouldn't, just look after our own sites as if they were islands," says Reynolds. "With pressure such as climate change, we can no longer expect things to be the same in 10 or 15 years' time."

It may be best known for its houses, but the National Trust also owns 600,000 acres of land, making it the second biggest landowner in the country after the Forestry Commission. This puts the charity in a perfect position to monitor the effects of climate change on the ground. Although it may still surprise some that it has adopted a more environmentally enlightened way of thinking, Reynolds argues it's far from a radical departure for the organisation.

"If you think about our founders, such as Robert Hunter, they were probably the great environmentalists of their time," she says. "We are an organisation that is responsible for properties and land in perpetuity; that's what our Act of Parliament says. We can't behave in a short-term manner or ignore the problems of tomorrow."

The National Trust is not a member of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition of charities, but it is in talks with them. Although Reynolds welcomes the initiative, she's not overly optimistic about what it will achieve.

"I think it's a good thing for organisations to get together to deal with one of the greatest challenges we face," she says. "The Prime Minister has made his view on climate change very clear, but the track record is not yet as convincing as it needs to be. There's clearly a question about how far and fast any government will go."

Reynolds gives the impression of someone who has a clear vision of what she wants to achieve and knows exactly how to go about it. One of her first decisions was to create a policy and strategy division and a customer services department. She also commissioned an independent study by Lord Blakenham into the organisation's governance. His proposal that the 52-member council be replaced by a 12-member governing body that could meet more frequently and therefore be more responsive, was implemented in the summer.

One challenge that still remains, however, is the rejuvenation of the volunteer base. A recent survey showed that only 4 per cent of its volunteers are under 35 (Third Sector, 12 June).

Reynolds says: "Retired people simply have more time than those in full-time employment, so we don't expect to ever have a very high percentage of people in their 30s and 40s - but we would like more."

The problem seems to be one of perception, Reynolds admits. "We need to improve the way we communicate what we stand for as well as what we do," she says. "We stand up for the values of looking after our heritage and countryside. That's why tackling climate change is so important."

Throwing off its fusty image might not happen fast but, with Reynolds at its helm, perceptions may soon be more green group than grandeur.

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