RNIB aims for 50,000 members

The RNIB will start recruiting next month for a mass-membership scheme that could grow to 50,000 in four years.

In a symbolic refocusing of its mission, the charity also changed its name on 1 April from the Royal National Institute for the Blind to the Royal National Institute of the Blind

The membership scheme, to be officially launched in September, will give blind and partially sighted people a voice in how the charity is run, through the election of a proportion of a new consultative assembly.

Full members will have the right to vote for 18 of the assembly's 90 members. The assembly will in turn elect 18 members of a new slimmed-down board of 24 trustees and provide members for policy committees, reporting directly to the trustees.

A majority of the board of trustees, the consultative assembly and membership must be blind or partially sighted.

RNIB chief executive Ian Bruce said: "Individual membership will make us even more accountable, make our services more customer-led and give us a stronger voice when lobbying the Government, the EU and other organisations."

RNIB's membership scheme follows the introduction of similar democratising measures at other disability charities such as RNID, Scope and Diabetes UK. However, the RNIB plans do not to go as far as other schemes, which enabled members to directly elect a proportion of the board.

James Rogers, RNIB's head of governance, explained. "We wanted to maintain the input of partner organisations such as the National League for the Blind and Disabled (which provide the rest of membership of the Consultative Assembly). We needed a balance - members will have quite a big say but not an exclusive one."

But Joe Saxton, who was head of communications at RNID when the charity introduced its membership scheme in 1998, questioned why RNIB had stopped short of direct election. "Any proposal that gives greater democratic power to a charity's clients must be welcome. But disabled people should be able to directly elect trustees. Anything other than that should be a transitional arrangement," he said.

There will be different categories of membership: full membership for individual, blind and partially sighted people; proxy or advocate membership for the parents or carers of blind and partially sighted people; and associate membership for general supporters and professionals.

A previous proposal in 1997 to introduce a membership scheme was postponed because of concerns that it would threaten the memberships of other blind groups. The new scheme will put new members in touch with local societies and professional groups.

"New members will receive a call from our staff ,which will include details of other local societies and organisations relevant to professional and social interests,"said Rogers. "So, for example, a lawyer will be told about the Society for Visually Impaired Lawyers. Rather than threaten other organisations, we hope the scheme will actually increase their membership."

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