63: Voluntary valour
Independent provision of lifeboats
The problem: funding an essential service
How does one organize and fund a search and rescue facility for those in peril on the sea? Is this a public good which should be funded by taxpayers, many of whom never venture out on the waves, or is it possible to maintain such a service by voluntary effort?
The idea: harness voluntary commitment
Yes, it is. You can establish a charity, raise funds from voluntary contributions, merchandising and donation,s and rely on volunteers to form the highly trained boat crews needed for maritime rescue services.
Examples: lifeboats round the world
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, established in the United Kingdom in 1824, demonstrates how successful such a voluntary organization can be. It is entirely self-financing, raising funds from membership subscriptions, charity trading, donations and legacies.
The RNLI has established a network of 223 lifeboat stations around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. It maintain a fleet of around 300 lifeboats with a further 135 relief boats in reserve. Lifeboats are built to the most exacting standards, so that they can remain afloat in even the roughest seas with 15-metre waves and 7-metre swells. They are fitted with leading-edge navigation and rescue equipment.
Apart from one full-time mechanic, all lifeboat crews are comprised entirely of volunteers. There are around 4300 volunteer crew members, most of them are men but some are women.
It costs the RNLI about £90 million to run the lifeboat service, which it does very efficiently: out of every £1 spent, over 80 pence is channelled directly into the running, maintenance and replacement of lifeboats; 17 pence is spent on fundraising and a modest 3 pence on administration. Any annual surpluses are put into a reserve fund.
Other countries have also established lifeboat services run as charities, operated by volunteers and independent of government. For example, the lifeboat service in the Netherlands was established in the same year as the RNLI. Other countries with volunteer lifeboat crews include Finland, France and South Africa. In many countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, a volunteer lifeboat service supports the government-funded coastguard.
Results: waves of savings
Since it was established in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 133,500 lives. Lifeboats respond to distress calls, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It offers a search and rescue service up to 50 miles off the coasts of the British Isles. Each year it saves well over one thousand lives. Over half are people who have got into difficulties on yachts and other pleasure boats, but a significant proportion are merchant seamen and fishermen.
The RNLI's expertise and experience is in demand worldwide. In Spring 2000, the charity sent a team to Mozambique to help saves lives in the flood relief effort on rivers around Beira.
The International Lifeboat Federation comprises rescues organizations from 41 countries. It provides a forum where members can exchange experiences and know-how, and so learn from one another.
Assessment: rescued from politics
The RNLI has shown that an efficient, world-class lifeboat service can be operated by a volunteer-based organization. It is one of Britain's leading charities, attracting more voluntary financial support than almost any other body. Over 200,000 people are members, grouped into 1,500 fundraising branches. They are happy to give their time and energy to raise money for something in which they believe.
The RNLI zealously guards its independence and receives no money from government sources. The organization stresses that by maintaining its independence from state support, it is not subject to the vagaries of government policy or budgetary constraints. By raising its own money, it feels it can better respond to seafarers' needs. As the RNLI points out: "The management of the Institution has stability and continuity which could well be lost if were subject to the whims of politicians and government funding."
The volunteers come from all walks of life - for instance, the Filey lifeboat in North Yorkshire has a crew of twenty made up of fishermen, paramedics, policemen, teachers, joiners, plumbers, oil-rig workers and even a deli-owner. A spirit of voluntary commitment pervades the whole organization and is undoubtedly its distinguishing characteristic. Such volunteers would be less likely to give their time if the service were government financed and controlled. As Andrew Freemantle, the charity's director points out: "The RNLI's volunteers embody many of the qualities that we are looking for in society today: dedication, compassion and courage."
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Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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