Sunday, August 11, 2013

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 7: the branches

Originally the link between the National (or Central) RSPCA and its branches was simple: each branch raised the funds needed to pay the wages of an inspector who would be trained centrally (to ensure consistency) and deployed to cover the branch area. Branches were required to raise at least 2 years funds and transfer them to the National RSPCA before they could affiliate and be given an inspector. This ensured that there would be a reasonably steady cash flow so an inspector could be confident of being paid.

As life moved on and the National Society built up more funding, the link between a branch's "quota" payment and employment of the inspectors gradually became more tenuous. The RSPCA gradually took on extra functions beyond campaigns and prosecutions, such as animal rehoming, veterinary treatment, pet neutering and so on. 

In the very early days, much of this extra activity was done by the inspectors (or their wives!) in their own homes and branch activity moved forward with the concept of their rôle of supporting the inspectorate being expanded to the provision of local welfare services which would reduce the workload of the inspector. 

Some branches took a very active part in driving forward change — for example Bath and District Branch was the first branch to adopt a policy that they would not put down healthy animals and would take in all unclaimed dogs from their local pound for rehoming (in 1955).

This additional workload gradually became a higher proportion of branch activity and the relationship between branches and employment of the inspectors weakened because it was more efficient to organise inspectorate work without reference to artificial geographical boundaries. As a consequence, branches who were struggling to meet all the calls on their resources began to resent the "quota" payment. At this time the Society as a whole was becoming more and more under pressure in relation to the hunting question and branch volunteers were sometimes very aggressively challenged to explain why they were unable to fund unlimited local services, often by people who assumed these services were all funded by the Central RSPCA and that the volunteers were themselves being paid and benefiting personally from money raised by a branch.

It gradually became obvious that a payment sufficient to cover the salary of two inspectors per branch area would leave most branches with little scope to handle their other responsibilities in respect of animals taken into RSPCA care by the inspector and that the issue was damaging relations between branch committees and the Society. The problem was finally solved by de-linking the quota payment from the inspectorate and introducing a sliding scale so that branches were required to contribute based on the levels of their uncommitted reserves. Funds raised from branch contributions are now ploughed back into regional funds to be spent on joint projects agreed between branches in a region and are no longer part of the general revenue of the Central RSPCA.

At present, branches receive a yearly grant of around £20,000 from the Central RSPCA in addition to a share of the subscriptions paid by RSPCA members living within the branch area.

Once telephone ownership became virtually universal the volume of phone calls to the society became such that it was not longer reasonable to expect them to be handled by a combination of branch volunteers and inspectors' spouses. First local, then regional and finally a national call centre was set up by the Central RSPCA to receive and triage calls about animals in distress.

A side effect of this was that larger numbers of injured strays and wildlife could be brought to the attention of the Society. Initially the Central Society assumed that this would fall under the existing remit of the branches to provide care for animals within their areas. However this proved to be impossible and the current position is that the Central RSPCA has an agreement with vets that it will provide up to £60 towards first aid so that branch volunteers do not need to be contactable 24/7 and can have uninterrupted rest at night.

What an enquiry might comment

The RSPCA is almost unique in the scale of its volunteer involvement. This is probably a major reason why it is able to achieve such low euthanasia rates but the negative side of this is some degree of inefficiency as a result of committees knowing their own patch but sometimes being unaware of the wider picture.

Branches are independent charities although they are governed by general society rules and some of them have turnovers approaching a million pounds p.a. This means the individual branch committees have a daunting task and a considerable amount of support is needed from the parent society when a committee consists mainly of newly recruited individuals. Consequently the amount actually spent by the society on support to branches is in fact considerably greater than the funds spent on grant aid.

Support is primarily given by the Branch Support Specialists whose rôles are subject to a degree of tension in that they are employed by the National society to support trustees of the independent affiliated charities and this may involve a degree of conflict if the interests of the National Society, a branch as a legal entity, the branch trustees as individuals and the local animals as beneficiaries are not fully aligned.

It may not be ideal if trained volunteer managers are recruited as Branch Support Specialists because of the importance of branch trustees being able to debate and act with some degree of independence from the National Society. This is less likely if their relationship with the link person "feels" like that between a manager and the group of volunteers who are to be managed.

It would make sense for the Central RSPCA and the branches to produce an agreed statement of the true financial relationship between them. Currently this is used as a weapon against the RSPCA, with claims  in the media that the branches have to pay large sums to the Central RSPCA while getting no funding from it for practical animal welfare work (and also that the Central RSPCA itself does no practical work). Branches may feel under pressure because they are accused of making a personal profit from their volunteer work and unintentionally contribute to the media attacks by issuing statements saying that their work is not funded by the Central RSPCA.

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