A securely funded future – the Canal & River Trust

Charity Case Study Series

  • Our new series of case studies takes a look at another inspirational charity and its transformation
  • Ruth Ruderham from The Canal & River Trust explains how it developed a sustainable strategy
  • Download our charity risk guide to find out more about how to ensure the sustainability of your charity

In the second in a new series of charity case studies, we hear from the Canal & River Trust’s Ruth Ruderham about its transformation, and how it ensured it had the necessary funding.

In 2012, the Canal & River Trust undertook a major transformation from public corporation to charity. Ruth Ruderham, the trust’s first head of fundraising, explains how it developed a sustainable strategy.

The Canal & River Trust was launched in July 2012 when the former Defra agency British Waterways made the historic leap from public corporation to charity. The new charity became the guardian of 2,000 miles of inland waterways in England and Wales. Caring for a 200-year-old network meant that long-term sustainability was at the heart of the charity’s thinking from the beginning.

A secure foundation

Government spending cycles are not geared to the long term, and the move to the charitable sector immediately offered an opportunity for the Canal & River Trust to break out of short-term financial thinking. The result was a 15-year government funding contract that gave the trust certainty of base income, and allowed it to plan its core spending much more cost-effectively.

However, it has always been commercially earned income, not government funding, which has provided the trust’s primary support. When the new charity was formed, it was not only responsibility for the waterways that was passed over, but also ownership of the canals, towpaths, docks and the land and buildings adjacent to them. This created an opportunity for a property endowment that is used to protect our national heritage and generate future income.

Diversifying income streams

We have hugely diversified earned-income streams – from boat licences, commercial moorings and the provision of utilities, to imaginative schemes such as a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline that sees the company using canal water to heat and cool its canalside head office. We also have a significant property development portfolio that includes everything from leasing land to entering into joint ventures to create new canalside developments.

The combination of contractually-guaranteed income and a property endowment meant the Canal & River Trust was able to plan for the future in a way that British Waterways never could.

Winning new supporters

Growing new sources of income was the first of our plans for the future, and the new charity invested significantly in growing a sustainable income base of individual givers.

Two and a half years after the launch, the charity had more than 10,000 active regular donors and attracted more than £3.5m in new income from the public, grant-making foundations, companies and private philanthropists. The market for donor recruitment is highly competitive – so how did we do it?

Telling a compelling story through face-to-face fundraising played an important part. We located our fundraisers at key sites along the canals to talk to visitors who were enjoying the pleasures of being by the water. Many charities struggle to explain their work succinctly on the street because the money raised and spent may take place thousands of miles away. It is therefore important that our fundraisers take advantage of being situated right in the middle of our work.

From a standing start, the trust is on track to meet its ambition of securing £10m a year of voluntary income each year within its first decade.

From a standing start, the trust is on track to meet its ambition of securing £10m a year of voluntary income each year within its first decade.”
Ruth Ruderham, Head of Fundraising, The Canal & River Trust

Engagement and governance structures

Despite good results, we knew that growing income from the general public could only go so far, and that the inland waterways would only ever have a secure future if they were truly valued by the people who use them. Creating a model that gave greater involvement to the millions of people who use and enjoy the waterways every year was therefore the key challenge that we faced when we became a charity.

The unique governance structures of the new charity were designed to generate involvement at every level, which in turn supports our sustainability objectives. The trust has a council that elects trustees; this council has a significant democratically-elected component, as well as co-opted experts. Candidates represent specific interest groups, such as boating customers or businesses such as marinas, with financial donors to be included for the first time in the 2015 elections.

In addition, local waterway partnerships were established to ensure a local voice is considered in any local decision. Specialist advisory groups were also formed to provide an insight into areas of work such as heritage, volunteering and education.

This engagement is having an impact. Volunteering has grown tenfold since the launch of the charity, with over 2,000 regular volunteers. And some of the new sources of income have helped grow this further. Esmée Fairbairn Foundation has, for example, funded a project that will attract volunteers from ethnically diverse communities around the Rochdale canal who have not traditionally engaged with the waterways.

Our journey towards sustainability has only just begun, and while there will be many more twists and turns on the way, as our chairman Tony Hales sums up: “Nobody wants to go back to the public sector, that’s for sure!”

Ruth Ruderham is head of fundraising at the Canal & River Trust.

Lessons for others

The Canal & River Trust learned valuable lessons on what works best when trying to find sustainable income. These include:

  • Earned-income strategies can provide a foundation of secure funding
  • If possible, use face-to-face fundraising to engage supporters and tell a story in a way that makes the most impact
  • Strengthening involvement within your governance structures and in local communities is vital to sustainability.