Never apologise, sometimes explain

What you can learn from the RNLI's recent 'controversy'

By Caoileann Appleby - Sep 26 2019

If you keep up with fundraising news, fundraising Twitter, or even just news in general, you have likely seen the Daily Mail’s attempt last month to stir up controversy against a charity (they were also joined by The Times).

In the firing line this time was the RNLI – for (gasp!) spending money on “foreigners” (yes, that was genuinely the word used by the Mail. No, I’m not linking to the piece). If you’ve listened to the recent BBC Radio4 piece on the Olive Cooke ‘scandal’, it’s easy to identify the familiar tropes: charities are the villains yet again!

But it was heartening to see the attack, by and large, failed.

What can we learn from how the RNLI responded?

Put values front and centre

In attempting to cast the RNLI as the villain of this manufactured story, the newspapers put themselves on the side of right. It’s not right – in their view – for the RNLI to spend donors’ money on “foreigners”.  It would have been easy to go into defensive mode, but the RNLI simply didn’t accept the premise of this framing. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s what their founder would have wanted:

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’.

And they aren’t ashamed, in fact the opposite:

We are proud of these drowning prevention initiatives, which save mostly children’s lives.

Therefore they’re not only doing the right thing, but also staying true to the values and heritage of the organisation. And given the heritage of the organisation is likely a key driver of existing support, this is powerful.


Explain, but don’t apologise

Key to the attack on the organisation was the implication that the RNLI had been hiding their international work; that donors would – and should – feel duped. In their response, the RNLI addressed this implication head on in their statement: 

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. 

They also explained why they fund creches in Bangladesh and burkinis in Zanzibar: because it prevents deaths by drowning, which is their whole reason for existing! The newspapers deliberately tried to confuse the difference between the charity’s method (in the UK and Ireland, mainly lifeboats) and the mission (preventing death by drowning). The RNLI showed supporters differently.

Show you’re not alone

As well as addressing the criticisms head-on on their website and other communication channels, the RNLI made a point of showcasing the support they were receiving as a result of the piece, thanking and retweeting donors on Twitter and elsewhere:

This is not only heartening for them, but is a very effective form of social proofing, showing supporters and the general public that the popular thing to do is to support the organisation.



Of course, while in the short-term the fundraising response looks good, it’s only in the long-term that we will be able to see the full effect on fundraising. But nevertheless, we can all take inspiration from a charity being brave enough to stand up for what it really believes in.

Tagged with: LegacypoliticsPRRNLI

Caoileann Appleby     @Qaoileann


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