RNLI switches to opt-in communications in move it says will lose it millions

21 Oct 2015 News

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has announced it is changing its approach to fundraising so only those who have given their permission will be contacted, in a move costing the charity £35.6m over five years.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has announced that it is changing its approach to fundraising so only those who have given their permission will be contacted, in a move costing the charity £35.6m over five years.

RNLI announced that this “fundamental change” follows the scrutiny fundraising practices have received over the last few months, and the conclusions drawn from the Etherington review. The RNLI said it welcomed the recommendations that said charities should exercise greater control over their direct marketing activities, but said it wanted to go a step further.

From 2017 the RNLI will only contact individuals who have expressly given their permission for the charity to contact them. The charity says this is an “opt-in” system where individuals must choose to be contacted, rather than an “opt-out” system where supporters are automatically added to a list on a database unless they expressly opt out – and which the RNLI currently uses.

The charity believes itself to be the first major UK charity to announce such a change. It said this will be a costly decision in the short-term, impacting RNLI’s ability to fundraise and therefore the income the charity needs to deliver its services. It estimates the move will result in a £35.6m loss of income over five years, forecasting that the shortfall will start at about £11m in 2016, falling to £4m in 2020 as the RNLI finds new ways to fund its services.

Leesa Harwood, RNLI's fundraising director, said: “The RNLI is making this change because we believe it’s the right thing to do – we’re lucky to be a well-respected and well supported charity and we need to make sure that respect is mutual and our supporters’ trust is well placed.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on our ethical approach to fundraising and the RNLI has been investigating how to reduce its reliance on direct marketing since late last year. Events such as the tragic death of Olive Cooke have made it clear that this kind of change is overdue so we’ve accelerated our move to an opt-in fundraising system.”

Harwood went on to say that the charity understands that not all charities are in the same position to make such a change as RNLI, and that an opt-in system is “not a simple or easy thing to adopt”.

She said: “We’re keen to share what we learn with others and work with the sector to enable those who want to work towards a reassessment of their own permissions.”

'No impact on services'

The RNLI told Civil Society News that the change in fundraising practices and the estimated loss of income won’t impact the services it operates. A spokeswoman said that the charity will use funds from its reserves to keep services going.

She said: “We’ve been investigating a change to our fundraising practices over the last 12 months, and maintaining our lifesaving service is our top priority. All of our planning has taken this into account.

“As an emergency service and charity, we have a responsibility to make sure we have reserves in place that will keep the service going during times of significant change. This means we are able to use funds from our reserves to mitigate the initial financial impact. Longer term, we have developed various plans to help reduce and ultimately mitigate the loss of income to ensure that we continue to save lives at sea.”

According to the charity’s most recent accounts, for the year-ending December 2014, the charity had £96.9m of free reserves – the equivalent to 10 months of charitable expenditure. In that year, the charity's income was £190m, with its expenditure at £157.6m.