Modernising governance and staying relevant

RSPCA CEO Chris Sherwood writes about governance changes and how a historic charity, approaching its 200th birthday, needs to reform and stay relevant. Chris will be speaking at our conference, about modernising governance through engaging your community. 

Thoughts at the RSPCA are beginning to turn to 2024, when we will be celebrating our 200th birthday. It’s humbling to think of all those generations of passionate and dedicated individuals who have fought for two centuries to improve the welfare of animals. We have a proud history – we predate the police and our work with animals provided the inspiration for the NSPCC. But the challenge for any charity with a long history is: how do we make sure we thrive and evolve in a changing world for as long as we are still needed?

What began as a small meeting of animal lovers in a Georgian coffee shop in 1824 is now a force of more than 300 inspectors rescuing thousands of animals every year. We run a large network of animal centres, hospitals, clinics, branches and volunteers all working to make the world a kinder place for animals. We have sparked an international movement of SPCAs around the globe, all committed to the animal cause. The challenges have changed – back then we were helping pit ponies and campaigning against bear-baiting. Now we face challenges such as puppy farms putting profit ahead of welfare to meet the desire for designer dogs, and the casual cruelty committed for ‘likes’ on social media and shared thousands of times online, normalising animal abuse for young people.

As a charity, we are out there doing our best on the frontline for animals 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but we know that dedication, although essential, is not enough. To fulfil our charitable purpose, to make sure we can continue doing our best, we have to modernise.

Governance is key to any charity’s continued ability to deliver their mission, and we must move with the times. Last month saw a vote on historic changes to our governance which will improve and sustain our charity well into the future. These changes – a smaller board, term limits for trustees, co-opted trustees with a range of skills and a wider pool of candidates – will bring us in line with other large, modern charities. Charities must keep the membership of their board fresh, bringing in new ideas and new skills and experience. But in truth, these changes are not easy for a charity with 200 years of history under its belt. Our members voted for something they knew was right, even if it meant many passionate and dedicated individuals will have to retire from our board.

Changes to our board alone aren’t enough. We need to convince people from all walks of life, with all sorts of experience and skills, that being a trustee for a historic charity like the RSPCA is fulfilling, is relevant, is worthwhile. I like to think of us as a social movement bringing people from all backgrounds and life experiences together, united by one thing – a love of animals and a desire to create a better world for all animals in it.

And we are relevant. We may soon be entering our third century on the frontline of animal welfare but we are still making a real and lasting difference for animals. Way back in 1835, we fought to outlaw bear baiting and cockfighting, but in the past year alone our campaigning work has had a huge impact. We have seen the Government respond to campaigns for tougher sentencing for those who commit the worst animal abuse and new legislation to stamp out the scourge of puppy farming which leaves dogs suffering and families heartbroken. Parliament has finally passed a bill to ban wild animals in circuses.

We have also turned the spotlight firmly on prevention, and last year launched our flagship programme Generation Kind, which is working with thousands of young people from all walks of life, through schools, through youth groups, through social workers and young offender programmes, to promote empathy, reduce cruelty and grow a generation of young people who will make the world a better place for animals. We are responding to the growing abuse which is being shared online, with our Special Operations Unit targeting and tracking down those who hurt and torment animals and post it on social media.

We are as relevant today as we were in that coffee shop in 1824, but we can’t do it alone. We are modernising to survive and we need people to join our movement, so we can be there for animals in need now and into the future.

Photo by Tomasz Frankowski on Unsplash

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