Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Bristol volunteers meeting (30/11/10)

I'm currently travelling back from the last of the current series of
special volunteers meetings with Rodney (chair) and myself - this one
in Bristol. Luckily snow didn't get in the way. Many of the people at
the meeting had been at last year's meeting in Bath - and everyone
agreed how much more relaxed and positive this year's was.

Key issues discussed include:

- recruiting volunteers. It was pointed out that many of our
volunteers were in the 50s and 60s age bracket. With more people
retiring later, this might impact on the numbers volunteering with the
Ramblers. [Of course, as people live longer, and are active longer,
the Ramblers also benefits from this, so the two effects prossibly
cancel each other out.]

- volunteers giving space for newcomers. The issue of volunteers
staying in the same post for many, many years was raised. It was felt
that this discouraged others from coming forward. (For example, when
newcomers make suggestions and are told, "oh no, we don't do it that
way!") It can be a problem particularly in this computer age, if long-
standing volunteers don't keep up to date with technology.
[Suggestions for dealing with this, mostly from other volunteers,
included: setting time limits for post holders; making use of honorary
positions such as president; and running training days for new
volunteers. Also - have fewer 'officer' posts; and ask people to do
tasks rather than hold an officer post.]

- financial situation. It was suggested that we might communicate the
latest financial situation, and the reasons for it's improvement, with
Areas. Some people might accuse us of cutting too deeply last year.
[Just to be clear on this - if we had not made the cuts that we did
last year, extremely difficult as they were, we would have run out of
money - become insolvent. We are likely to make a surplus of about
£800,000 in the year just ended - 2009/10. This is mainly due to: (a)
reducing our costs (the painful cuts last year); (b) trawling back
through years of unclaimed Gift Aid to claim everything owed (made
possible because of the CRM software - but this is a one-off); (c)
unbudgeted legacies (again, a one-off bonus); (d) better than expected
membership income (membership still fell, but slightly less than
predicted; also, the switch from 'reduced' to 'concessionary' rate was
more effective than predicted). We still have some difficult
financial times ahead - certainly until membership starts going up
instead of down; plus, Get Walking Keep Walking ends December 2011,
and that provides about £200,000 per year towards overheads (rent,
lighting, etc). This will need to be found elsewhere if we don't
replace this grant funding. Plus inflation is higher than expected.

I think I've mentioned before that the surplus from the year just
ended is being used to (a) make targeted investments of about £350k
(much of it aimed at improving income generation in the future); (b)
make provision for a potential deficit in our pension fund in future
years (£250k); (c) provide a small top-up to our reserves, after the
very big financial loss the year before.]

- why people join the Ramblers. We discussed the relationship between
the walks programme and campaigning.

- group creation. The Bristol group, which is very large, says that it
does many of the right things to attract members, but membership is
still falling. Avon Area was very successful, between about 1986 and
1998, at forming new geographical groups, and membership grew during
this time. Membership has been falling for much of the period since.
We discussed the potential for setting up new non-territorial groups
(there's a potential one in Bristol which organises walks along the
canal called Wessex Wanderers), and also cutting down the bureaucracy
(fewer committee posts, fewer meetings). [I'd like to see Areas try
out new things - different types of groups, different models. We're
going to learn by experimenting a bit. I also said that we'd like to
pilot, for new members joining online, giving them the option of not
joining a group at all (many groups complain about sending information
to lots of people they never hear from). Apparently, this used to be
the case 30 years ago!]

- electronic mail and websites. Gloucestershire reported that through
using e-mail, it had reduced its unit costs for communication by 40%.
It had also revamped its website - but in doing so, in trawling
through Area and Group websites, it had identified an enormous range
in quality - from great, to terrible. There was also little help from
central office available for web development. [I agree with this. This
is a vital area for the future. Although we are investing £75k in our
web this year, we need more to really get our web act together. This
is a challenge for management and the board going forward.]

- communication. There were complaints about no longer getting the
monthly e-news since stepping down from a volunteer role (we'll look
into thus - anyone can opt into the enews, but we only proactively
send it to volunteers rather than all members). There were mixed
views on communication, but generally people did not favour going back
to paper.

- Forestry Commission sell-off. I explained our 'key tests' for
judging any selloff proposals. It was suggested this could make a
useful debate at General Council [seems a good idea].

- Revenue from book sales. We were asked whether a group could keep
the profits from book sales to use on local initiatives. [Generally
this is fine so long as the proceeds are used for our charitable
purposes, and that reserves are not built up to excessive levels. We
are advising at least one Area on how to manage down its reserves by
spending them on the charity's purposes. Kevin Edwards at central
office can provide advice.]

- location of central office. The issue of moving central office is
not just a financial one, but also a symbolic one. [The board has
stated it is minded to relocate central office outside of London when
the lease comes up fir renewal in four years. It is due to have a
discussion on this early next year. Financially, it is unlikely to
save much money and may even cost us more to start with because (a)
our rent in London is quite low - we are in a 'charity' block, and it
is comparable with other places;(b) there will be considerable removal
costs, plus staffing costs. There are other very important, symbolic,
reasons for looking at a move - and anyway, with new technology the
need for a large central office is reduced (we now sub-let about one
third of the space at central office to another charity).]

Those were most (but not all) of the points discussed. Another very
helpful meeting.

Tom Franklin

Ramblers - at the heart of walking for 75 years
Please visit www.ramblers75.org.uk to find out more
The Ramblers' Association is a registered charity (England & Wales no 1093577, Scotland no SC039799) and a company limited by guarantee, registered in England & Wales (no 4458492). Registered office: 2nd floor, Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TW.
Visit our website at www.ramblers.org.uk

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