The woman who raises the money - then spends it

Leesa Harwood has the unusual dual role of director of community life-saving and fundraising at the RNLI, writes Susannah Birkwood

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

In 2013, the RNLI made a bold move. The lifeboat charity decided to merge its fundraising department with its community life-saving department, which has responsibility for 237 lifeboat stations, more than 300 lifeboats, 5,000 volunteer crew members, a flood rescue service and a drowning prevention programme.

Leesa Harwood, who had been the charity's deputy director of fundraising and communications since January 2014, was appointed director of community life- saving and fundraising. For the first time in her career, Harwood - who has a background in fundraising for charities such as Save the Children and Business in the Community - would be responsible for spending the money as well as raising it. "Being responsible for the emergency service and for generating income is a really great overview to have," she says.

This initiative has placed Harwood in a better position to ensure that the RNLI's fundraising practices are aligned with the charity's values, she says. She believes that other fundraising directors could benefit from having a similar breadth of perspective. "Sometimes, when there's a disconnect between the way you spend the money on your mission and your fundraising practices, people end up engaging in unethical practices, so it's really important to have that line of sight," she says. "When you're responsible for both of those things, income budgets are based on what we need to spend, not on last year's figures plus a bit extra."

Harwood says she has come across many charities that use yearly fundraising targets and put fundraisers under pressure. Short-term targets are often created by charities' short-term business models, she says. "This is partly why we've changed the business model at the RNLI," she says. "We wanted to do long-term planning with rolling targets and sustainable income generation where the values, end-to-end, are aligned."

The restructure of the directorate was one of several strategic decisions made by the RNLI in 2013. Another major change was to move to an opt-in-only policy for the charity's communications, which will come into effect in January. The policy means that the charity will not contact individuals by phone, email or post unless they have actively given their consent for the charity to do so, rather than assuming that people are willing to be contacted unless they tell the charity otherwise.

Sir Stuart Etherington's review of fundraising self-regulation recommended that charities adopt opt-in systems, and the Information Commissioner also considers it best practice. Harwood believes that the RNLI is the only charity to implement this recommendation so far. She forecasts that the move, which goes above and beyond the Institute of Fundraising's recommendation for charities to state clearly on any addressed mailings how individuals can opt out, will cost the charity £36m in lost income over the next five years.

The move to opt-in was part of the same rationale that led to the restructure of the fundraising directorate, Harwood says. "When you change your business model, inevitably you've got to have a long hard look at how you fund the charity."

Another aim of the restructure was to reduce some of the tension between the RNLI's fundraisers and programme staff, she says. Under the new set-up, fundraisers are being embedded in departments across the organisation rather than housed in a single department. This means they are now more motivated and better at articulating the impact of the charity's work, she says, because of the increased understanding they now have of how the money they raise is used. "The message is that, whether you're holding a fundraising event in your community or manning a lifeboat, you are saving lives," Harwood says.

When the furore surrounding charities' fundraising practices erupted in May, she was concerned that the RNLI's new structure might cause problems because it would be harder for her to take fundraising decisions without consulting others. "As it turned out, it wasn't a problem, and being forced to involve and collaborate with other directors who had fundraising within their departments did nothing but add value," she says. "Now, I cannot and would not make a decision about strategic fundraising without having a conversation with them about how it would play out in their departments."

She says that this collaboration made it easier for the charity to review its policy on vulnerable people this summer. "Vulnerable people aren't just the concern of fundraising," she says. "We engage with them when we rescue them, when we talk to them about safety. They are a crucial part of the organisation. In the past, we had different interpretations of policy and they're now coming together."

Standardised expenses

Harwood says the charity is also planning to standardise its policy for volunteer expenses, whether these are for volunteer crew members or fundraisers. She says consistency of policy-making between fundraising and other departments is reducing conflict at the charity and saving resources.

So could a structure like this be the answer to the problems faced by charity fundraising departments across the country? Harwood thinks not: "All charities are different. They all have slightly different funding models and business models. What works for the RNLI will not work for some of the other charities.

"But one thing I will be doing over the coming months is meeting other fundraising directors to talk about the changes we're making. I'll share what's worked and what hasn't, and whether we've made the right decisions."

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