Saving lives: focus on the RNLI

21 Jul 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 21 Jul 2017

RNLI volunteers deal with difficult circumstances
RNLI volunteers deal with difficult circumstances

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a rarity – a first-response emergency service operating on a voluntary basis. Scope shines a light on this successful and highly-thought-of organisation.

The work of the RNLI is universally appreciated.

The organisation provides a life-or-death service, in often difficult circumstances, across the UK and Ireland. Northern Ireland’s relationship with the waters around our coast means it plays an especially vital role in this region.

Accordingly, it gets good publicity. Just this week you might have seen news of a rescue – perhaps rare because it was just about onshore - near the Antrim Coast Road.

Earlier this month there was a lighter story about how dolphins tagged along as a lifeboat crew helped out people on a yacht that became stranded trying to sail from Bangor to Scotland.

These reports pop up with regularity and they indicate the vital service provided by RNLI. One that should not be taken for granted, and which Scope has decided to highlight.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about RNLI is that it is a charity and that the vast majority of its funds are raised by donations. The organisation came together at a time before government comprehensively took up the mantle for these areas of need. It was founded in 1824 - five years before Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police Force.

Other necessary emergency services now all exist on a statutory basis but, when we spoke to the lifeboat organisation, we were told that they see their charitable status as an advantage and that while everyone involved performs a public service they would not want to be part of the public sector.

A spokesperson said: “Independence is one of our core principles. We are fortunate to enjoy a high level of support from the public who donate generously to ensure our lifesaving service can continue.

“The RNLI is substantially a volunteer organisation. Many thousands of people volunteer their time, skills and commitment so that the RNLI can achieve its purpose of saving lives at sea. The RNLI and its volunteers are devoted to the voluntary ethos and the independence of the Institution and would strongly resist any change.”

Work in NI

RNLI has a significant presence in Northern Ireland. There are 10 lifeboat stations - located at Enniskillen, Carrybridge, Portrush, Red Bay, Larne, Bangor, Donaghadee, Portaferry, Newcastle and Kilkeel - and 11 RNLI lifeguard beaches, with eight on the Causeway Coast and three in County Down.

 “The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea. The RNLI provides a 24-hour search and rescue service to 100 nautical miles out from the coast of Ireland and the UK. We saves lives by providing a rescue service, safety education, supervision on beaches and through influencing others.

 “RNLI volunteer lifeboat crews are prepared to drop everything and risk their lives to save others at a moment's notice. Their lifesaving work is essential, often difficult and sometimes dangerous. And with only 1 in 10 volunteers joining the RNLI from a professional maritime occupation, training is especially important. That’s why we provide our crew members with first-class training, equipment, guidance and support.

“RNLI lifeguards aim to reach any casualty up to 300m from shore within the red and yellow flags on RNLI lifeguard patrolled beaches within three and a half minutes.

“Last year lifeguards in Northern Ireland responded to 235 incidents coming to the aid of 255 people. Incidents ranged from saving a life, carrying out a rescue, assisting a casualty, providing casualty care and minor first aid to being involved in searches, near misses and incidents involving missing and found people.”

Charitable issues

Like all third-sector organisations, RNLI is adapting to changing socioeconomic times and looking for new ways to fund their services. 95% of their total income comes from donations and so innovation and evolution is a must.

They are clearly aware of some of the changing demands – and recent crises – ongoing in the fundraising world. All good charities need to be aware of these and must adapt.

“It costs £90,000 to run one of inshore lifeboat stations annually and £210,000 to run an all-weather lifeboat station. Individual crew member annual training costs are £1,567. 95% of RNLI people are volunteers. Whether its volunteering their time, raising money or supporting us in other ways, the RNLI relies on the publics generosity to save lives at sea.

“Moving forward we are looking at new ways that we can engage new and existing supporters and thinking about how we create a sustainable funding strategy for the future. So we’re looking at using a combination of new and traditional fundraising methods to grow engagement and this will be a focus for 2017. As a sector we need to create a new world of fundraising and leave behind the practices of the past.

“We are always assessing the way we raise money for our lifesaving service and by 2015, we were looking at new ways to fundraise in response to the rising costs and falling responses of traditional methods – we knew that we needed to make significant changes. The media reports of questionable fundraising practice and proposals to change charity regulation prompted us to bring this work forward and move to opt-in.

“We’d always taken great care to adhere to fundraising best practice but we realised that we could take a step further. Our supporters trust us with their donations and time, and we wanted to demonstrate that their trust was well placed. We feel opt-in is the right thing to do for the RNLI so that we can maintain supporter trust, create engaged supporter community, reduce cost and set an ethical standard.”

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