Voluntarism: Life Savings

For 170 years, a private British organizatin has been rescuing people at sea.


In May 1993 the racing yacht Heptarchy, with a crew of 10, fouled its propeller in a fishing net while trying to get into port in Cornwall, England. Gale winds of more than 60 knots blew the yacht out to sea and knocked it down. Using its VHF direction-finder, the lifeboat David Robinson located the Heptarchy and connected a line. After a five-hour struggle in turbulent seas, it managed to tow the 56-foot yacht to safety in Falmouth.

The David Robinson is one of 272 lifeboats assigned to 210 stations in the British Isles run by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The lifeboats are called out some 5,000 times every year to offer assistance in marine mishaps. According to its records, the service saved an average of three lives a day in 1993 and has saved more than 124,000 since its founding in 1824.

But running the lifeboats and paying the thousands of rescue workers does not cost British taxpayers a penny. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a private organization, supported, as it proudly says on its letterhead, "entirely by voluntary contributions" and managed by its own trustees and staff. The RNLI will rescue you whether you are rich or poor, whether you have donated to it or not.

Most of the RNLI's rescues these days involve pleasure craft such as the Heptarchy. But the service has wide experience. In the north of Scotland, the Wick lifeboat was called out in April 1993 to save the cargo freighter Eilean MoGrhidh after its engines had failed and the tide was sweeping it out to sea. The tow was quite a feat, since the freighter was 20 times the size of the lifeboat. At Aberdeen, Scotland, in October 1993, an inshore inflatable lifeboat was called out to a trailer park that was under 10 feet of water because of flash flooding. According to the service report, the lifeboat crew rescued 12 residents, three cats, and one American visitor.

The lifeboat service was born in the days when Britons believed in independent, voluntary action. In 1789, a ship foundered in a storm in the mouth of the river Tyne. Spectators on shore watched in horror as crewmen fell into the sea and drowned; no one was able to rescue them. Moved by the tragedy, local philanthropists offered a two-guinea prize for a lifeboat designed to withstand heavy seas. Several inventors came forth with ideas, and the result was a long rowboat pointed at both ends and buoyed by 700 pounds of cork. One by one, local life-boat stations were established along the coast.

In 1823, Sir William Hillary, himself a lifeboatman on the Isle of Man with 305 rescues to his credit, wrote an "Appeal to the Nation" calling for the establishment of a national lifeboat organization supported by voluntary subscriptions. London merchants took up the idea and organized the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1824. The RNLI eventually set up stations all around the British Isles, including Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The RNLI is unusual among British charities in the loyalty and affection it inspires. It has some 2,000 fund-raising branches led by volunteers who organize a multitude of events, from penny races, bike rides, and tugs of war to golf tournaments and garden shows. The donors feel the RNLI is special. In a pub in Lympstone, Devon, I struck up a conversation with Ian Smith, a computer programmer for an insurance company and an amateur yachtsman. When I told him I was in England studying voluntary groups, he wrinkled his nose.

"There's only one charity I respect," he declared. "As a matter of fact, it's already in my will." I'd been around the non-profit scene in Britain long enough to know before he said it that Smith was talking about the RNLI, which is known for its probity. Most other national charities in Britain are partially funded by the government—though they try to hide this fact—and many lobby the government for more money.

The idealism associated with being "entirely voluntary" helps motivate volunteers for the lifeboat crews. At Exmouth, a town on the Southwest coast, station treasurer Jack Stapley reports a standing crew of 21 volunteers and nine more wanting to serve. "We always have a waiting list," he says. One volunteer went on a crash weight-loss program to meet the physical requirements for crew membership. The eagerness to volunteer is remarkable considering that 435 crew members have died in the line of duty since the RNLI was founded.

Stapley was involved in his first fund-raising drive for the RNLI at age 4. As an adult, he served as a crew member until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 55; he has been the station's treasurer since leaving the crew 15 years ago. One of his biggest jobs is tending the 140 miniature lifeboat-shaped collection boxes placed in the stores and pubs in the Exmouth area, which raise $7,500 a year.

The national office of the RNLI recruited many professionals from business and marine careers who donate their services as board members. While the local chapters manage station operations and local fund raising, the national office establishes standards, runs training and testing programs, and designs and builds the high-tech lifeboats (the newest of which are self-righting, capable of 25 knots, and cost more than $1 million each).

Since the 1890s, left-wing activists have pushed to have the RNLI nationalized on the ground that the state ought to run all public services. These campaigns always founder on the hard rocks of fact: The RNLI beats government emergency services hands down. Its naval architects and managers have designed and built a fleet of rescue boats that are the most advanced in the world (when they are retired at their British stations, the secondhand boats are purchased by coast-guard agencies of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Uruguay). The RNLI's voluntary income ($92 million in 1992) easily covers its costs, and its reserve fund of $223 million could keep the service going for more than three years. Compare this financial picture to the fiscally strapped government, which frequently curtails state services such as hospitals and libraries for lack of funds.

Then there is the advantage of volunteers, who cost less than full-time government staff and are more dedicated to serving the public. In most of Britain's government-run emergency services, employees have formed unions that go on strike, interrupting the vital services of ambulances, fire brigades, and hospitals. A strike at the RNLI is hard to imagine. Unlike a government agency, a voluntary group like the RNLI cannot force people to pay for its services. It appeals to the public's generosity, and it can do so only by behaving in a generous way itself. A strike by the RNLI would destroy the public good will on which it depends. The crew members are paid only a small ($11) stipend on the days they go out. Their example inspires the paid mechanics and other staff members, who would never think of letting the public down by a deliberate act of disruption.

Reviewing all these advantages, the government's own officials down through the years have quietly agreed with the sentiment expressed by Jack Stapley when I asked him why the RNLI avoided government support: "We feel service would deteriorate if it was government-funded."

James L. Payne is the author of Costly Returns: The Burdens of the U.S. Tax System (ICS Press). He recently spent a year in Britain researching voluntary organizations.