RNIB sets out plans to keep up with pace of digital change


newslatestThe UK’s biggest charity for blind people is launching a “major realignment” of its priorities, putting more money into supporting people who have just been diagnosed with sight loss.

The new long-term strategy will demand far more from the charity’s commercial operations, newly grouped under the RNIB Solutions umbrella, and its fundraising department.

This should allow RNIB to spend “quite a substantial amount” on funding new eye clinic liaison officers, who are based at eye clinics and provide both emotional and practical support for those diagnosed with sight loss.

It will improve the current “patchwork service”, where only about eight of the 100 people every day who are diagnosed with permanent sight loss are offered such support.

But RNIB told Disability News Service (DNS) that there would also be some job losses within the charity, although it was “not possible to put a figure on this as we need to be sensitive to the staff affected and nothing is final”.

Under the changes, services such as Insight Radio, Talking Books, National Library, and National Talking Newspapers and Magazines (NTNM) have been brought together under the RNIB Solutions umbrella by a new group director, Neil Heslop.

These services will be asked to produce more revenue, said Heslop, so they no longer need to be subsidised and can instead become a “net contributor” to the charity.

But – in a possible sign of the sensitivity of Heslop’s plans – RNIB later insisted that “services such as NTNM and Talking Books will continue to be subsidised as we need to make sure these services continue”.

The spokeswoman was not able to say how much subsidy the services within RNIB Solutions currently require.

Heslop has held senior positions in the telecommunications industry in the UK and US, including spells as head of strategy and general manager of retail operations at O2, and as chief executive of Cincinnati Bell Wireless, and was awarded an OBE in 2002 for services to British telecommunications and charity.

In an interview with DNS, Heslop said RNIB had to keep up – for the first time – with the “extraordinary pace of digital change”, but that it would be a “very real challenge” to be “sufficiently fleet of foot”.

He said RNIB Solutions services would need to provide content more effectively, faster, and cheaper, and reach “far more people” than they do currently.

One aim is to double the number of audio books available over the next couple of years from the current stock of about 20,000.

The first change that service-users might notice, in the first six months of next year, will be increased choice in how content is delivered, such as offering the Talking Books service in new formats such as MP3, digital downloads and even on USB sticks.

Heslop admits the charity will need to spend more on marketing and secure efficiency gains, at a time when the government’s austerity programme has hit funding from local authorities for Talking Books, one of the charity’s key revenue streams.

But he said the charity was “stable and growing and healthy”, with revenues of £120 million a year, and the changes were “because we are wanting to do more”, and not because of any financial problems.

Heslop also wants RNIB to be the “retailer of choice” for independent living products for blind and partially-sighted people, and to use his corporate experience to help RNIB offer consultancy services to business on making their products and services accessible.

But he also insists that he is “very sensitive” to the “potential negative impact” that a huge charity like RNIB can have when bidding for contracts against small, local disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).

He adds: “The over-riding principle has to be what is in the interests of the beneficiary, the community we are here to serve.

“Where we are effective in meeting need, that’s what we need to aspire to do.”

The priority, he says, is to ensure that blind and partially-sighted people receive a good service, rather than worrying about who is providing it.

He adds: “We are a charity and we are entrusted with other people’s money and therefore it is incumbent on us to ensure that every pound that people give us, we do our damndest to get the maximum benefit to our beneficiaries.”

But he also pointed to one of RNIB’s five core values, which is that it is led by blind and partially-sighted people – it now considers itself to be a DPO – and that its members are a “key part of our decision-making criteria”.

Heslop says he hopes his record of leading organisational change in the telecommunications industry, his focus on using technology “in a creative way to deliver value to customers”, and being “absolutely driven by a customer-centric approach”, would help him to be successful at RNIB.

He also points to a 25-year history as a blind person working with voluntary organisations, alongside his mainstream business career.

He is a co-founder and long-standing trustee of Blind In Business, a charity which helps young blind and partially-sighted people into work through training and employment services.

In September, RNIB sparked anger from campaigners for inclusive education after it announced that it was sponsoring a special school in Coventry to convert into an academy, a decision that was described as a “dark day for inclusion”.

But Heslop said that his personal philosophy – having attended both mainstream and specialist institutions – was that there should be a “mixed economy” of mainstream and special settings, and that he becomes “rather worried” when “dogmatic views” are expressed about inclusion.

Speaking for RNIB, he said such judgments were “terribly finely-balanced” and “on the management agenda constantly” but there was “no sort of religion about this”, with decisions “being dealt with on a very pragmatic basis”.

5 December 2013