Jonty Pearce throws his support behind the RNLI as he reflects that 2019 has not always been smooth sailing for the charity

As I write my RNLI charity Christmas cards my day is darkened by the thud of a Self-Assessment Income Tax Calculation landing on the doormat.

We are all well accustomed to paying our taxes, be it willingly or under duress. The harvested money passes to the Exchequer, who we trust to spend our hard-won cash with care and diligence.

We are all different, with diverse priorities, and government expenditure might not always match up with our approval and preconceptions of fiscal prudence; such is life.

My attention was distracted from my card writing as I picked up the word ‘RNLI’ on the radio. It was an appeal for donations, though unusually the words ‘shortfall in funds’ were actually mentioned.

Now, charities come under a slightly different category to taxes in that our contributions, donations, and legacies are voluntary; we can pick and choose and opt for those we feel are the most deserving.

Any charity needs a management structure, and there is great responsibility in running such an organisation based on other people’s donated or willed monies.

RNLI book Courage on our Coasts

The RNLI is facing a shortfall in its funds

All expenditure has to be justified, employment levels scrutinised, and the just causes supported need to be in line with the mission statement.

It is wise to keep politics, personal crusades, and ‘correctness’ out of the planning process. It is a tough and winding path to follow, and it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

Occasional wobbles inevitably will occur. The RNLI appears to be under the spotlight for such a slight wobble from its traditional role.

On the back of crew suspensions and personnel tribunals its finances are reported to be stressed. As a result, some 135 employees have been given notice of redundancy. Is this exceptional?

Probably not, given the current pressures the world of business exists under.

What seems to have upset the apple cart is the expansion of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute into an international sphere.

Continues below…

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We are told that this accounts for only for 2% of its expenditure, but hecklers have already called for the National part of its title to be changed to International. RILI does not trip off the tongue so easily.

So, what is this dastardly activity that has triggered this unrest?

The answer appears to be drowning prevention support in other countries. Now, while drowning prevention is unarguably benevolent, the overseas aspect is the nub of the unrest.

For an organisation whose mission statement (in 2013, anyway) used to be ‘The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) is a charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland, the Channel islands and the Isle of Man, as well as on selected inland waterways’ the addition of work in Mozambique and Tanzania seems outside the stated remit.

I’m sure that the mission statement has, of course, been ‘updated’, but, as a long-term RNLI Offshore supporter, this fact had slipped under my own radar.

I must admit that I have more compelling concerns in my life, but this activity has upset others, and the fact that it came to the surface of public consciousness just as the charity announced a multi-million shortfall in its funding could be said to be unfortunate timing.

In 2018, the RNLI had a £6.3 million shortfall in funds and its legacy income fell for the first time in five years – by £8.5 million.


With invested reserves also reducing by around £10 million due to the challenging economic climate, the RNLI was regrettably unable to keep a firm hold on spiraling costs; its spending increased by £4.5 million. Ooops.

To its credit, in response the RNLI has launched the Perfect Storm appeal to raise £1.8 million by mailshots, emails, and direct response TV and radio advertising such as the clip that caught my attention on Classic FM.

So, should we all just stand by and moan about this organisation’s manpower and wages bill and beef about overseas lifesaving activities even if they are not in the mission station’s small print?

No! This worthy cause needs our support, and we should rally to uphold the world’s greatest lifeboat service.

And be assured, even a cursory glance at the RNLI’s response to recent criticism shows that its eye is definitely back on the ball, and that all efforts are being made to restore the Royal National Lifeboat Institute back to its former iconic charity leadership position.

In response to media articles criticising the charity’s international work, the RNLI issued these questions and answers:

Why are the RNLI spending money on overseas projects while cutting 135 staff in the UK?

The RNLI has always been dedicated to drowning reduction. The World Health Organization estimates that 320,000 people drown each year worldwide and we believe that with others, we should use our lifesaving expertise to try and help tackle this. Our work so far has shown that simple, inexpensive solutions are very effective; a relatively low investment in overseas projects goes a long way and makes a big difference.

We currently spend less than 2% of the RNLI’s total annual expenditure on our international drowning prevention activity and we actively seek donations specifically for this work, including the Isle of Man’s International Development Fund and Department for International Development in the UK, both of which have made substantial donations to our international work this year. Providing the very best search and rescue service in the UK and Ireland remains our priority but we are also proud to use our expertise, knowledge and influence to help others save lives across the world, particularly in countries where drowning rates are high.

Since 2012 there has been a steady increase in international expenditure that reflects the increase in the number of projects the team are involved in. However, all areas of RNLI work – including our international budget – are being looked at and we are reducing costs wherever we can as part of an organisational wide programme of activity to get us back to living within our means

RNLI response to criticism that the charity has misled donors who thought they were donating to save lives in UK and are now surprised to learn that money is being spent overseas?

We greatly value our supporters and have not misled them. The RNLI’s international work has been reported in detail in our annual reports going back several years and information is also available from the RNLI website and regularly reported elsewhere. The financial commitment to our international work is reported separately and there has been no sleight of hand.

The RNLI’s priority is to provide the very best search and rescue service in the UK and Ireland, but we are also proud to use our expertise, knowledge and influence to help others save lives across the world, particularly in countries where drowning rates are high. Our founder, Sir William Hillary, had the vision that we ‘should extend our views [of drowning prevention] from our own immediate coasts, to the most remote quarters of the globe, and to every neighbouring state’. This remains relevant today.

Why are the RNLI involved in doing International work?

We don’t operate RNLI lifeboat or lifeguard services overseas – instead, we support the work of partners to build local capability. Our international drowning prevention work currently includes educating children in water safety and survival swimming; training personnel in lifeguarding, search and rescue and lifesaving leadership skills, and international advocacy to champion the drowning prevention cause at a global level. Our aim is to increase the number of people who can make a difference to the safety of others in their communities, and share their skills so the lifesaving legacy continues, as well as to call for greater awareness, resources and action at a global level. We can’t do this alone, so are working in partnership with other organisations to increase our impact.

Why are the RNLI funding burkinis?

The Panje Project teaches women swim survival skills in Zanzibar. The burkini, which is a full length swim suit is an innovative (and cheap) way of enabling girls in strict Muslim countries, to get into the water without compromising their cultural and religious beliefs. The RNLI have been involved in the Panje Project with the majority of the RNLI’s involvement funded by a donor who specifically wanted the money to go towards this project.

Why is the RNLI getting involved in creches?

The Creches for Bangladesh programme helps reduce children’s risk of drowning by ensuring they have close supervision throughout the day. Around 40 children a day die from drowning in Bangladesh.

Children are most vulnerable to drowning between 9am and 1pm when parents must work to feed their families, and are unable to provide close supervision. Community-based creche facilities provide a safe environment for children aged between 1-4. Run by local women, these facilities provide a secure place away from open water for children to play and learn important skills.

Access to a free creche place reduces a child’s risk of drowning by an incredible 82%, as well as providing essential early childhood development. We work in partnership with the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB), who are experts in injury prevention and drowning prevention. Alongside CIPRB we have already helped to fund 10,000 creche places for some of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable children. All public donations to our recent appeal were matched by the Department for International Development.

Are there any changes or cuts happening to the RNLI’s international work in the current climate?

All areas of RNLI work are being looked at as part of our programme of activity to get us back to living within our means, this is underway and we can’t confirm any details or figures at this stage.

The main priority is ensuring we can maintain our world-class domestic search and rescue service. Any work we do on top of this will not detract us from our core purpose.

Respond to criticism that the charity has become too hung up on political correctness

As an emergency service, the RNLI must adhere to the very highest standards of safety and behave in a way that meets the expectations of a modern emergency responder. And as a charity, we take our ethical and legal responsibilities very seriously. This means that we expect our staff and volunteers to behave appropriately towards each other, supporters and members of the public. We do not consider this political correctness. We are a charity that our volunteers, supporters and those we rescue can trust to do the right thing – whether that’s rescuing those in peril, keeping our volunteers safe or making sure anyone who is part of the RNLI feels welcome and valued. And we’re proud of our volunteers’ professionalism and our organisation’s commitment to being a modern emergency service and principled charity.