Newsmaker: Rocking the boat - Andrew Freemantle, Chief executive, RNLI

John Plummer

As a former army brigadier, it's perhaps not surprising that Andrew Freemantle arrives for the interview armed with a strategy. "If you can remove any misconceptions that the RNLI doesn't need money and doesn't have a sensible reserves policy, I'd be grateful," he says.

Freemantle looks remarkably youthful for a man who just celebrated his 60th birthday, but his brow furrows at the mention of the charity's reserves policy.

The trouble began shortly after the turn of the century when the organisation - Britain's fifth biggest charity with an income of £110m - got embroiled in an unseemly and damaging spat with the Charity Commission over the amount of money it was holding back from the front line.

The regulator hinted that the organisation was hoarding too much, which prompted Freemantle and his senior colleagues to meet the then chief commissioner.

"We said 'there is some suggestion that you think the RNLI has too many free reserves; please tell us how many you think we should have'," he recalls. "The answer was 'it's not our business, it's your business'.

"Our trustees said we should seek to maintain reserves of no less than one year, and no more than three years."

That amounted roughly to between £100m and £300m. At the time, the RNLI was sitting on more than £200m, which seems like enough for a very rainy day. Freemantle dismisses this as "grossly unfair". "We're a capital-intensive organisation," he says. "We can easily spend £50m a year just on boats."

News of what Freemantle describes as the "strange dialogue" with the Charity Commission got out, and suddenly the RNLI was cited along with the likes of Elton John and the Beckhams as being filthy rich. He believes the charity is still suffering for it, with some donors thinking their money would be better spent elsewhere.

The RNLI's financial position, like that of many charities, has changed considerably in recent years. Stock market losses mean reserves currently total around £90m - slightly below the target level. At the same time, the charity is busier than ever before, having performed more sea rescues in 2003 than at any time in its 180-year history. The increasing number of recreational sea users suggests the trend will continue.

So when the Queen opened a £25m lifeboat college in the summer, and the charity unveiled plans to build a £5m heritage centre, the RNLI was more open to accusations of recklessness than over-caution.

Perhaps the fallout from the reserves controversy explains why Freemantle is at pains to spell out why the college, which includes a 60-bed residential unit, conference facilities and survival centre with a 25-metre wave tank where recruits practise capsize drills, is a prudent investment.

The residential unit alone will save £1m a year on hotel bills for recruits who travel to Dorset to undergo sea rescue training, while the conference facilities will generate cash. But Freemantle is keen to point out that the plans were drawn up when the RNLI had significantly more reserves than it has now.

And there is another reason. "We live in a more litigious society and we need to train the crew in a way that perhaps hasn't been necessary before," he says.

Face-to-face fundraising is another issue in his in-tray. The RNLI pulled the plug on chuggers this summer . "We took the view that there was some disquiet with face-to-face," says Freemantle. "But we might conceivably seek to do it again."

The lure of street fundraising appears more attractive when Freemantle talks about relying too heavily on legacies, which account for 60 per cent of its income. "The RNLI has led the way as far as legacies are concerned," he says. "But common sense says we have to become less dependent on them."

He wants the fundraising team to increase corporate support and double membership. In terms of communications, he thinks the team needs to address the ignorance about the RNLI.

"Everyone who goes to sea understands what the RNLI does, but if you walk down a street in central England, people might be pushed to know we are a charity, that we provide sea rescue and don't get any money from government," he says.

Freemantle is unequivocally opposed to accepting the government shilling.

Less than 1 per cent of RNLI income comes from statutory funding, and this is from local authorities paying for beach rescue. "If you take money from the Government then understandably the Government wants to call the tune," he says. "People who support the RNLI do so in the belief that we are totally independent and apolitical."

Fine words, but in the era of Futurebuilders and a Labour Party whose election manifesto is likely to include a pledge to increase charities' role in delivering public services, isn't he swimming against the political tide?

Freemantle points out that the RNLI has been running a public service since 1824, and that ministers should be happy they don't have to subsidise it. He estimates it would cost them around £300m a year to provide a similar service. In return, RNLI trustees reserve the right to say 'no' to any government proposal they don't like.

"I think the Government gets a jolly good deal from the RNLI and so does the public," he says. Some 136,000 lives saved in 180 years makes Freemantle's comment difficult to dispute.

But as recent times have highlighted, even providing a free life-saving service doesn't shield you from criticism.

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