This week, I have been talking to a group thinking of establishing a National Trust in Thailand. They are visiting the UK later this month and we have been putting together a programme to show them how the NT works in this country – and to draw on the wide experience from across the INTO network of different structures, models, constitutions and approaches. We’ve also of course been talking to our INTO member organization in the region, the Siam Society.
Fiona has had similar conversations with colleagues in Hong Kong earlier this week so it’s clear that the idea of a National Trust is a potent and attractive one, but there seem to be a few key questions for those embarking on this journey:
We see all over the world that Trusts are facing similar challenges – of neglect, environmental change, conflict and disaster. The current unsympathetic financial environment means that funds, both public and private, can be less forthcoming but also that threats to special places increase as governments try to kick start sluggish economies by relaxing planning laws or building their way out of the crisis. Interestingly the Yangon Heritage Trust, a relatively newly established ngo, successfully lobbied for a moratorium on the demolition of colonial buildings to slow the fast rate of loss of historic sites.
Tougher times can however mean that people think less about material wealth or status and instead take comfort in family and community, places they love, the appreciation of beauty, fresh air and a sense of kinship with each other, with the past and with the natural world. Which can only be good for National Trusts!
The experience of INTO members and the worldwide National Trust movement highlights the importance of:
i) Providing a clear articulation of the Trust’s mission and status
National Trusts all over the world are founded on common principles, yet each has developed according to the local circumstances. Many National Trusts have very simple missions. Looking after special places ‘for ever, for everyone’ sums up the core purpose of the Trust in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (NTEWNI) and has been copied around the world. The tagline of the US National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) is ‘Save the past. Enrich the Future.’
National Trusts have dedicated much time and resource to planning – from overall strategic planning for the organisation to business plans for individual properties, from personal development plans for staff to tailored statements of significance for special places. Strategic focus, relevance and simplicity are essential ingredients.
National Trusts are traditionally non-governmental organisations, although often incorporated by Act of Parliament. In practice, all National Trusts have established good links into government (some have Ministerial appointees on their Boards ) and may receive some State funding. Some Trusts have a wide remit and many responsibilities, which straddle public engagement and regulation. Clarity is sometimes needed as to whether the National Trust is a citizen movement or an arm of government.
However, the model of a quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organisation (QUANGO) National Trust is quite common in the Caribbean region for example, and indeed a Trust that receives capital funding from the Government and potentially publicly owned properties does require the status of a statutory body.
ii) Eliminating overlaps and duplication of efforts in the heritage sector and focusing on unmet needs
There are often a number of bodies involved in heritage conservation and some National Trusts play an ‘umbrella’ role for the sector. Heritage trusts have the potential to bring alternative approaches that supplement Government efforts in preserving a country’s heritage (although they could not replace Government’s role entirely) and collaborative working with partner organisations brings benefits to the whole sector.
A heritage trust, as opposed to a Government entity, is more likely to have an entrepreneurial approach and to recruit staff with appropriate private and voluntary sector experience. It would also enjoy the flexibility of a not-for-profit organisation, allowing it to develop partnerships with the private sector, to respond to changing circumstances, and attract a group of concerned members of the public.
With strong support from the community, an independent National Trust can play a differentiated and positive role in engaging the community to promote heritage assets and need not duplicate existing entities.
Working in partnership is essential.
iii) Developing a constituency that believes in the work of the Trust, whether as members or supporters
By devoting energy to reaching out to a new generation of young people who appreciate and are willing to support heritage causes, Trusts begin to secure their future. To mobilise widespread public support, a Trust needs sufficient independence to seize on issues of importance and raise funds. Dedication, integrity, transparency and professionalism are also important if it is to be considered credible and ‘trust’worthy.
Membership is almost always a realistic proposition – depending on levels of membership fee. Servicing a membership can be expensive however and needs adequate incentives for people to join. It is worth noting that in the US, the cost of servicing the membership exceeds membership income. From a purely financial outlook, the NTHP loses money on memberships, however, the value of members to a National Trust goes beyond their monetary scope. The strength in numbers behind the preservation movement has a key role to play in the power of advocacy and political might which is put behind the NTHP.
The difference between ‘paying members’ and ‘interested individuals’ is a live issue and some INTO members are moving away from a membership model to developing a group of ‘supporters’. The NTEWNI has a very sophisticated membership programme, hardly surprising when the organisation’s 4.7 million members contribute in the region of £178m (US$237m) per annum, the single largest source of supporter income.
International experience shows that organisations with an extensive property portfolio are generally more successful in building a large membership. However in some cases, for example where it has proved difficult for the Trust to begin acquiring property, it has been able to recruit members through offering other benefits (such as heritage tours and lectures).
To build an active and creative outreach programme to attract and retain members a Trust needs to develop its membership marketing capacity.
iv) Establishing sound financial planning to ensure that core costs are met and operating costs are covered through endowments or other revenues
Ideally, through efficient management and a realistic business plan, a National Trust could be expected to make only modest demands on the public purse. Adopting a business approach, Trusts can develop multiple sources of income, including membership subscriptions, admissions, building rental, fundraising events and investment from seed money alongside its Government subvention. Having alternative sources of funding will strengthen the Trust’s position as different administrations can have different attitudes to heritage and a degree of financial independence – and security – is essential.
v) Adequate attention to governance and selecting personnel with strong leadership qualities who are able to convey the importance of the Trust and attract others
The governance of successful Trusts stands up to a high level of public scrutiny. Building a strong, influential and cohesive Council is an important element in the Trust’s long-term viability and success.
Openness, transparency and accountability should be at the heart of National Trust governance. The better run the Trust, and the more open it is to those who wish to get involved, the more successful it will be. One of the most important ways of achieving this goal is through the appointment, selection or election, as appropriate, of high calibre volunteers capable of overseeing the governance arrangements of the Trust, ensuring that it remains focused on achieving its mission efficiently and effectively. Selection processes should be conducted in an open and transparent way, designed to be thorough, robust and expeditious, applied consistently and fully explained and comprehensible.
Operational responsibility is usually delegated to a salaried Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who is fully accountable for all aspects of the successful running of the Trust. He or she ensures that both its day-to-day activity and its strategic development reflect the very highest standards of businesses and charitable foundations, and heritage conservation best practice. Finding the right CEO is essential as an injection of passion, experience and leadership could make all the difference to a growing Trust – here’s a brilliant NT leader with her team of volunteers!
Thanks for reading!
Download June Taboroff’s Heritage Trusts: Creating Opportunities for Public Participation in Cultural Conservation
Download Rachel Nordstrom’s Report on the Development of a National Heritage Organisation for Kosovo
Download my Study on the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago upon which this blog is based
Support the work of INTO in helping to grow the National Trust movement