How RNLI fought back against bad press and actually increased fundraising

The RNLI offer a great example of how to stick by your principles in the face of adversity – and actually increase your fundraising success

Chrissy Chiu | 6th Jan 20
how RNLI fought back against bad press and actually increased fundraising

Navigating choppy waters over last autumn, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) bounced back from bad press to find more support from donors.

Over the past few years, the charity faced a spate of negative press from the Daily Mail Online circulation, highlighting rumoured misbehaviour of RNLI volunteers and financial positioning of the charity. Most recently, the Mail Online and Times took offence to the organisation’s leadership and the international efforts in which the charity has taken part. The RNLI currently runs projects in Tanzania and Bangladesh to educate children on drowning.

“The fact the RNLI are cutting staff in the UK but boosting spending on these international projects begs the question of what the priority of the organisation is? They are risking the reputation of the charity,” said Tory MP Nigel Evans, who sits on the Commons International Development Committee.

Colleague Conservative MP Andrew Brigden said: “It is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, not the Royal International Lifeboat Institution.”

“I would say 99 per cent of the British public giving money to them have not the faintest idea it’s being diverted to projects overseas,” added Mr Evans.


> Read More: Rise in RNLI online donations following negative press coverage


Daily Mail and Times articles create controversy online

Readers were quick to criticise one of the most cherished charities in the UK and its CEO, Mark Dowie. Many online comments focused on Mr Dowie’s salary and that ‘national’ should not include international projects funded by the RNLI in Tanzania and Bangladesh. The charity’s marketing and communication response was thoughtful and well prepared, underscoring its mission and values:

“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,” said a spokesperson from the charity.


> Read More: RNLI plots major IT revamp


Reacting to the media coverage, some online donors vowed to cancel digital fundraising efforts, with a few vocal opponents mentioning transparency as a concern – that supporters didn’t know that some of their fundraising efforts went to international projects.


Turning the tide

Despite the media storm, the charity’s marketing and communications response reversed what was initially reported as a drop in online donations.

Charity digital leader and CEO Mark Dowie refused to be cowed by the Mail’s coverage, and said: “Providing the very best service in the UK and Ireland remains our priority but we also wish to use our expertise, knowledge and influence to help others save lives across the world, particularly where drowning rates are high.”


> Read More: RNLI becomes first charity in UK to accept Bitcoin donations


The RNLI fought back through strong communication over social media, with multiple statements on its Twitter account, including: “We are proud of our international work. Its saves (mostly kids’) lives. And we haven’t kept it secret – it’s in our annual report, on our website and in the media. We spend just 2% of our expenditure on this work.”


Digital fundraising come back

Since the bad press, digital fundraising has seen a huge comeback, with many supporters buoyed by the charity’s international leadership and stance on preventing drowning no matter where it happens.

Speaking to the HuffPost UK, a charity representative said: “In response to the recent media pieces about the lifesaving work we are doing overseas, we have been very encouraged to see a sharp increase in online donations, coupled with some very positive messages of support.”

Many online supporters have remembered the charity’s long history in the UK. Since 1824, the RNLI has saved 142,200 lives and had numerous forays with international vessels and fundraising efforts.