In one way the RSPB is very successful. It is remarkably skilful at monetising the British love of nature. Fifty years ago it had an annual income of just £74,000. In today’s money that would be £1.2m. Today that has ballooned to £140m. Like any successful business the RSPB constantly reinvests in growing that income – so much so that to other conservation charities it has become the cuckoo in the nest.
Over the last ten years it has spent some of its £1 billion income recruiting a small army of passionate wardens and scientists. It has also lavished money on PR and lobbying. Yet money has not been able to buy the one thing the RSPB leaders really crave: influence. Its bosses have alienated those who run the countryside – the gamekeepers and farmers. They have also managed to lose the respect of key government leaders.
- In 2014 the Charity Commission and the ASA told it to correct is false advertising claim that 90 pence in the £1 was going on conservation
- In 2016 writing for a Royal Society publication a dozen scientists said that the RSPB was distorting the science on grouse moors
- In 2016 the RSPB pulled out of the government’s hen harrier plan just months after having agreed to be part of it
The good work of its scientists gets lost in the chaos caused by RSPB head office
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In the past the RSPB’s political punch came from its claim to represent its one million members. Yet these are customers who have paid to get access to its reserves. Their views are no more represented by the charity’s campaigners than Nectar card users are by Sainsbury’s. Opinion polling shows that on sensitive issues like hen harrier management these members overwhelmingly back the government’s approach of relocating chicks from grouse moors.
This pragmatism is reflected in the graph below which analyses the RSPB’s 265,000 followers on Twitter. The names on the edges are of those Twitter users who are most influential for the RSPB’s followers. The bigger the text the more retweets the Twitter user is getting.
The most striking thing is the dominance of the Hawk & Owl Trust. This respected conservation body has the ear of government and clearly that of RSPB supporters as well. It supports the government’s plans on hen harriers. The range of interests of RSPB followers is also fascinating. They are into big cats, the National Trust and growing vegetables.
What has stopped the RSPB from listening to its members as well as to the farmers, gamekeepers and academics it would like to influence? One factor has been the lack of internal democracy. When there were only three candidates for three RSPB trustee positions it became clear that the organisation has been captured by its leadership. Perhaps also the RSPB’s impressive financial success meant that its leaders felt no pressure to listen.
Yet that has changed. As its track record comes under increasing scrutiny the RSPB is finding that money cannot buy you influence.