Bird charity’s spending priorities come under fire

Nature reserve

​Major figure on the birdwatching scene lambasts "cringeworthy" RSPB campaign

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25th September 2014 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

The RSPB has defended its spending priorities after they were questioned by a prominent figure on the British ornithology scene.

Dominic Mitchell, editor of Birdwatch magazine, criticised the society’s focus on growing membership and the amount of cash spent doing so.

In an editorial in the magazine’s October issue, he lambasts “cringeworthy” and expensive TV ads featuring a red squirrel called Bob – which don’t even mention the RSPB.

Mitchell writes: “These are interesting times for the RSPB. Last year the society rebranded itself and ran an appeal-broadening TV advertising campaign, the results of which are now emerging.

“The good news is a record membership level of 1,114,938 (April 2014), up from 1,084,827 12 months previously. Less positive is the cost of this increase, some £3.2 million being spent in total. In crude terms, that’s more than £106 for every new member recruited.

This is an investment in the future – our membership is on the way up and that brings us the funds to manage and make new nature reserves

“In the longer term, the return should prove better value than it looks, as more membership renewals and increased campaign donations bring in further revenue – assuming the society doesn’t have to keep up the high spending just to maintain its existing membership level, a problem it has faced previously.

“But over £3m more is being spent on TV advertising this year too, in what could prove an expensive gamble. Every organisation has to invest to grow, of course, but there will come a point at which the cost of trying to do so outweighs the return.

“In the RSPB’s case, how much more could have been achieved by investing those same millions directly into front-line conservation? £6.2m would restore significant amounts of habitat and buy major tracts of land for UK reserves, as well as expand the society’s high-priority investigations work; internationally, it could purchase more than 60,000 acres of tropical rainforest.

“The RSPB’s new mission to ‘give nature a home’ has been followed by an even less bird-focused ‘Vote for Bob’ drive, featuring a red squirrel in what the society says is “an innovative, quirky campaign” to get nature back on the political agenda.

“I’m all for that, and all for red squirrels too, but can’t help thinking that the core focus on birds and conservation action is becoming diluted. Some expensive – and cringeworthy – press ads featuring ‘Bob’ don’t even mention the RSPB by name, let alone birds.

"There are better ways of getting effective messages across, and of motivating the concerned public to support nature and lobby their MPs. I’m a huge supporter of the RSPB and its work, which is why I sincerely hope its bold – and expensive – new strategy pays off. At the same time, I’d like to keep in mind the foremost objective of the society’s charter: to conserve wild birds and the wider environment on which wild birds depend, maintaining bird numbers, diversity and natural geographic distribution.”

However, RSPB Scotland’s James Reynolds responded: “Dominic Mitchell is entitled to his opinion. We’ve been open about what we’re doing and we’ve not invested as much in digital and making sure our recruitment of new members is as good as it can be.

“This is an investment in the future – our membership is on the way up and that brings us the funds to manage and make new nature reserves.”