RNLI faces 'perfect storm' of rising demand and falling donations, says chief

Mark Dowie says the lifeboat charity will have to cut costs and fundraise more efficiently as income falls by £7.2m

Mark Dowie
Mark Dowie

The lifeboat charity the RNLI is facing a "perfect storm" of rising demand and falling donations, its chief executive Mark Dowie has said.

Dowie told Third Sector the organisation would have to cuts cost and fundraise more efficiently after the charity’s latest accounts showed that income fell by £7.2m in 2018 and rising costs meant the charity had £28.6m less to spend on charitable activities than the previous year.

He said he would look at all areas of the charity to find efficiencies and did not rule out the possibility of job cuts.

Dowie, who took over as head of the charity four months ago, said: "The challenge we have is really clear: we’re running a world-class search-and-rescue service and we’re busier than we ever have been."

Last year, RNLI lifeboats were launched to help 9,000 people and RNLI lifeguards assisted in 20,000 incidents.

The number of incidents has increased dramatically since the charity was founded in 1824, Dowie said, because more people were taking part in water-based and coastal leisure activities.

By way of comparison, he said, the lifeboat at Salcombe in Devon, where he volunteered as lifeboat operations manager for two-and-a-half years, was launched twice in the first seven years of its existence in the mid-19th century but 66 times in the past year alone.

But at the same time as demand has risen, income is looking uncertain.

In the past year, the value of the charity’s investment portfolio fell by £10m, while its legacy income fell by £8.5m.

Dowie, who previously worked in banking, described the situation as a "perfect storm" and said the charity needed to be sure it was operating within its means.

"My experience from business is that no matter how efficiently you think you’re operating there are always ways to find more efficiencies," he said.

"I am looking right across the charity to ensure that we are not wasting a penny of donors’ money. At the same time we need to make sure we are fundraising as efficiently as possible.

"We need to ensure our fundraising branches and our commercial activities are raising as much money as possible.

"There’s efficiency on both sides of the equation: the cost side and the income side."

When asked whether this could include job cuts, he said: "I’m going to look at every area of the charity.

"I’ve got a golden opportunity to really take stock, bringing my business background to bear within the charity."

He said he would not be drawn on what exactly this would mean, but added that the charity's supporters needed to be "certain we’re operating as efficiently as we can be, and all bets are off right across the charity".

At the beginning of 2017, the RNLI went "opt-in only", promising it would send fundraising material to or contact only those people who had proactively agreed to it.

Dowie said he did not believe the move to opt-in only had caused the drop in fundraised income.

Instead, he said, the charity faced a "diversification challenge".

He said: "We’re conscious of the need to diversify and not to rely on one stream of fundraising."

The RNLI had been at the forefront of mass fundraising throughout its history, Dowie said.

"So we’re always going to look at the ways that we engage people as supporters, whether that’s through events such as bazaars and cake sales or managing legacy interactions better," he said.

"There’s nothing that’s off the table. We’re lucky that we have a dedicated team of fundraisers and supporters, and we need to make sure that we’re with them and helping them provide the service that we need."

Volunteering at the charity before taking on the top job had given Dowie a different perspective on the charity and its operations, he said.

"It’s not easy being a volunteer, either on the crew or as a supporter," he said. "You give up something of your life and even put your life in danger.

"I’m incredibly conscious of the sacrifice that crew and supporters make and I’m lucky to have that perspective."

- This article was corrected on 29 August 2019. It originally said income fell by £13.4m in 2018. 

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