From collection tins to contactless: 8 RNLI fundraising innovations

Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, lifesavers have depended on donations to keep our seas safe.

From collection tins to contactless: 8 RNLI fundraising innovations

Photo: HH Tansley

In 2016, we became the first major UK-based charity to ask supporters to give their permission to get in touch, rather than assuming people want to hear from us unless they explicitly 'opt out'.

It's a bold move, but it's not our first bold move.

With fundraisers across the UK and Ireland testing new ideas for over 100 years, here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

1. Take to the streets – 1891

RNLI volunteers gather outside Manchester Town Hall on a historic day for charity fundraising
RNLI volunteers gather outside Manchester Town Hall on a historic day for charity fundraising

Until the late 1880s, the RNLI mostly relied on wealthy philanthropists for financial support. It was the horrific Mexico disaster of 1886 that revealed just how strongly the wider public felt for our cause. On a mission that rescued all 12 of the Mexico’s crew in a violent gale, 27 lifeboat volunteers drowned, leaving 16 widows and 50 fatherless children.

Cover of a programme for an early Lifeboat Saturday in the 1890s

Photo: RNLI

Cover of a programme for an early Lifeboat Saturday in the 1890s

What followed 125 years ago on 10 October 1891 was the first charity street collection in history. Around 30,000 people turned out in Manchester to watch the parade of bands, floats and two horse-drawn lifeboats. One day brought in £5,000 (worth almost £250,000 now). There was no shirking from the first floors either – crew members carried sacks held aloft on oars to reach those watching from windows and the tops of buses and trams.

‘The first Lifeboat Saturday was hugely influential and changed charity fundraising forever,’ says Hayley Whiting, from our Heritage Team. ‘Ordinary people were being asked to help, and were clearly happy to do so.’

2. Partner up – 1900

A 1978 advert in the Lifeboat.The frozen foods company gave the lifeboat Birds Eye to New Quay RNLI in 1970. You can still see her at the Seawatch Centre in Moelfre, Anglesey.
A 1978 advert in the Lifeboat.The frozen foods company gave the lifeboat Birds Eye to New Quay RNLI in 1970. You can still see her at the Seawatch Centre in Moelfre, Anglesey.

Teaming up with like-minded businesses can benefit charity and brand alike. From squeaky-clean soap to brandy, cigarettes and frozen fish, the image of the lifeboat volunteer has come to represent tradition and security.

This 1900 advert for Lifebuoy soap is one of the earliest examples of such canny marketing, though it’s not known if a sponsorship deal was in place.
This 1900 advert for Lifebuoy soap is one of the earliest examples of such canny marketing, though it’s not known if a sponsorship deal was in place.

3. Burst into song … and grab a bucket – 1926

Was this the RNLI’s earliest flash mob? Cast your imagination to 1920s Fleetwood. For several Summer evenings, a merry group of holidaymakers from Bolton gathered on the promenade and spontaneously ‘sang hymns, patriotic choruses, etc.’ according to the Life-boat Journal.

It continues: ‘Fleetwood folk … were so impressed that they gathered round and joined in. Then someone had the happy idea of taking a collection for the local Life-boat funds.’ This scratch choir was so successful that they planned to repeat the venture in the September holidays.

Everyone piles in for the last song of the Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival, in aid of the RNLI
Everyone piles in for the last song of the Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival, in aid of the RNLI

Today, those in good voice at shanty festivals from Falmouth to Rosses Point still help bring in thousands for the RNLI. Even if you don’t know your South Australia from your Drunken Sailor, joining in is highly encouraged.

4. Behavioural benefits – 1956

Extracting charitable donations for self-improvement has become a valuable public service. From the housemaster who is recorded in the Lifeboat as fining boys ‘suffering from temporary amnesia’ (they’d cheerfully agreed and chosen the RNLI), to the cricket players billed for turning up late to matches in 1956 – it’s nice to think our collecting tins benefited, even if Latin verbs were forgotten and the first innings undermanned.

Since 2014, our H2Only challenge has taken up the baton, encouraging people to drink nothing but water and charging fines for ‘luxuries’ (it’s all relative) such as a slice of lime or an ice cube.

5. Miles save lives – 1978

Up mountains, round islands, across countries … every year people take on epic personal challenges to raise funds for our lifesavers.

William and Rosemary
William and Rosemary

On May Day 1978, Rosemary Whitton set off with her donkey Sweet William from St Ives Lifeboat Station, Cornwall, to trot the 278 miles to Hyde Park Corner in London. As with many fundraisers completing long-distance journeys, Alison met with great generosity and kindness, including farriers who brought along a mobile forge to replace one of William’s shoes en route.

The pair made it to London in 28 days, even prompting Blue Peter to rearrange their schedule to fit in a 3-minute interview.

Rosemary raised over £1,500 and wrote afterwards: ‘I proved to myself that a journey of this sort can still be undertaken if proper training, preparation and planning is carried out … and the RNLI has tremendous support throughout the country, even in places remote from the sea.’

Alex Ellis-Roswell will walk over 10,000 miles of British and Irish coastline for the RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Alex Ellis-Roswell will walk over 10,000 miles of British and Irish coastline for the RNLI

Meanwhile, spare a thought for Alex Ellis-Roswell, who is walking around the Irish and UK coastline – with no donkey support team to lighten his load.

6. Think outside the collecting box – 2014

RNLI Mayday welly full of coins on the beach

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

With innovations in the how of fundraising, it makes sense that the what is up for discussion too.

As well as accepting pounds and euros, the RNLI has long benefitted from unwanted foreign coins. But in 2014, donors’ wallets went digital when we became the first major UK charity to accept the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. The money may be virtual but the benefits are very real, with over 800 donations and £2,700 drawn down into sterling so far.

We're also trialling contactless giving. You can tap your credit or debit card - or your phone if you're set up for mobile payments - to donate quickly and easily at Aldeburgh and Tenby Lifeboat Stations, Looe and Penzance RNLI Shops, the Grace Darling Museum, the Henry Blogg Museum and Dart RNLI Visitor Centre. Look out for our 'Tap to give' boxes at RNLI events and lifeguarded beaches too!

7. A lifeboat can have many names – 2015

It’s an old Scandinavian saying that ‘a loved child has many names’. This surely makes Shannon class lifeboat Cosandra the most loved in the fleet. After our Christmas 2015 appeal to fund this relief boat, the names of 13,256 funders have formed the distinctive RNLI 13-12 on her hull.

You can watch the curiously hypnotic printing, cutting and sticking process below. (Anyone who’s used sticky-backed plastic will seriously respect the lack of bubbles in that sticker application.)

8. Exploit animal cuteness – timeless

Long before the first sneezing panda gif(t)ed its way onto our screens, animal lovers have been wheeling out the big guns to bring in the coins.

Rex collecting on Eastbourne Lifeboat Day in July 1956
Rex collecting on Eastbourne Lifeboat Day in July 1956

Special mention should go to the dogs, who – our archives confirm – have been kitted out in all manner of clever harnesses to hold collection boxes.

And let’s not forget young Alison Robertson’s fundraising chicken, which she paraded around the streets of Eastbourne in a pram on RNLI flag days. One blue steel look (posed below) from the much-loved family pet had people bewitched and emptying their pockets.

Alison Robertson with her fundraising pet chicken on Eastbourne RNLI Flag Day, c. 1925
Alison Robertson with her fundraising pet chicken on Eastbourne RNLI Flag Day, c. 1925

Keep in touch with us from 2017

For almost 200 years, we’ve been coming up with new ways to keep fundraising fresh. We’ve always valued our supporters and the trust you place in us, so we’re becoming the first major UK charity to move to opt-in communications. From January 2017, we won’t contact you unless you’ve given us your permission.

If you want to be first to hear about our latest fundraising ideas and rescues, please give us your permission to keep in touch. There may or may not be chickens.

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