After the leaps and bounds of the previous year, 2016-17 was bound to look a little more like work in progress. Operations and client activities continued strongly, while the construction of Thames Discoverer, our new boat, was underway throughout the year. This project has been ring-fenced from our operational work in terms of resource management, but inevitably takes much attention, and draws time and energy from many people.
Operationally, we are now experiencing more fully the general effects, partly delayed, of the economic and political climate, including changes in care provision and school budgets under pressure. This has meant that, where before we enjoyed a high level of repeat cruise bookings with new ones based mainly on word-of-mouth, we are now having to work much harder at promoting all our work against a high level of competition from providers of therapeutic, respite and education activities.
So, alongside delivering our customary great service to clients, we must be imaginative in how we communicate and how we fund our work. Two new projects helped us keep innovation in mind, equally important for funding. However, balancing innovation with maintenance of excellent daily service in our core work is key and we all agree the latter takes priority; thankfully, some of our most supportive and regular funders and donors recognise and appreciate this. We are extremely grateful.
Financially, we had another strong year with a healthy surplus, thanks mainly to expected development income that is funding our boat build. We also made a general surplus from traditional sources of income used to fund our operations. By 31st March 2018, the current year, we expect our balance sheet and reserves to look significantly changed as the money in the development fund turns into a capital asset in the form of a second boat. There are a couple of warnings in the results. Reduced grant income and lower-than-budgeted income from fees & charges mean we must not be over confident, despite the current surplus.
A huge number of hard-working and devoted people are behind what we do and enormous appreciation is owed to all. I would, however, like to acknowledge three who stepped down this year: Wendy Moss, who gave sterling service as Company Secretary (as well as volunteering) for 16 years; Alison Oliver, lead trustee for finance who, after a stint of several years on Thames Venturer and in the office, joined the Board in 2013 and overhauled our financial accounting; and staff member Gemma Hindi, our environmental education specialist, who helped radically shift the charity’s approach to running educational activities. Their positions are now occupied by the more-than-able Linda Varney, Stephen West and Zaria Greenhill.
Thank you – everyone.
Louise Sibley, Chair of Trustees
Operations – cruises and educational activities
Cruise bookings last summer achieved 83 days on the river with groups of older and vulnerable people, and we continued in every way to provide special days and memorable experiences. We ran 47 education days/activity sessions during 2016-17, slightly lower than the previous year – which had been exceptional owing to the introduction of a new outdoor learning curriculum for schools.
Because of lower budgets continuing to affect our traditional groups and long term clients, we embarked on a more active cruise marketing programme during the year to understand and reflect in our operations the needs of those we serve. In addition to identifying a much wider potential client list, research showed that many would welcome shorter trips and half day cruises as full days can be tiring and difficult for some of our more vulnerable guests. We also identified affordability as a key factor. Accordingly, we introduced a new schedule enabling half days and have continued to keep down rates, despite increasing costs, to ensure affordability.
Two pilots during the year also brought encouragement. The first was a project to run ‘inter-generational’ cruises – training young volunteers from the Head Start charity as boat crew working with older people and thus develop new skills in some key areas. This was funded thanks to a grant from the Mercers’ Company and completed with 12 young people. We hope to repeat this work in the future, when we have resolved some of the operational requirements that were revealed through conducting the project.
The second was to test offering learning activities to cruising groups, encouraging our volunteer crew to lead activities on board with our cruise clients that would enhance personal enjoyment. This was funded by BAA Heathrow Communities for Tomorrow and Global’s Make Some Noise and has been designed to appeal to clients wanting a more active experience, whatever their age or ability. Activity resources are now offered to cruising clients when booking and crew have been trained in delivery. This has proved popular and is now integrated into our work.
Our range of educational activities continued to grow. In particular, we have been very pleased that our work downstream in Wapping has continued. With the support of Hermitage River Projects (the trust associated with Hermitage Community Moorings), we made one trip with Thames Venturer last year, in October, and ran one week onshore, in March, in the HCM facility.
Development – second boat
In April 2016 work started at C.Toms Yard in Polruan, Cornwall on our specially designed accessible boat. This was an exciting moment in the history of the charity, as a custom-built boat for our cruising work has been a long-held ambition.
So, it was with great pride that a group of staff, trustees and guests attended a keel-laying ceremony on 31st August, led by our President, Sir Peter Harrop and with the Mayor of Fowey as special guest. On a suitably sunny day, a plaque acknowledging our key funders and donors was welded to the keel along with, as customary, a shiny new coin. The boat build was deemed well underway and the finished boat is due to start service in the current year.
Construction is only part of the story. While the build is underway, much attention has been paid to changes in the operational requirements of the charity with two boats, including the specification of booking and administrative systems technology that will support in the background. Marketing activities are being reviewed (see Operations Report) and the other significant piece of work has been an investigation into the deployment of volunteer skippers, which was led by long-term volunteer Peter Finch.
Together with a group of experienced boating volunteers, to whom we are deeply indebted for their work, Peter produced a full report covering practices by other boating charities, qualifications, training requirements, financial implications and some risk analysis. The charity has decided to proceed with these recommendations and draw up a plan for developing over time a cadre of suitable volunteer skippers from within and outside the charity’s current cohorts.
Finally, there was the all-important hunt for a name. Many were suggested, and many rejected after an open appeal/naming competition among volunteers, Friends and members. Three finalists were chosen, and given to the vote among AGM attendees in November. The result: Thames Discoverer.
Only a small proportion of our costs are covered by fees and charges to clients and, with the ongoing need to keep prices affordable, the charity is laying more emphasis on fundraising to cover our fixed costs. Grant funding is being challenged, and while the charity benefits greatly from those foundations, trusts and individuals who continue to support us, this is an area which is under strong competitive attack, meaning our search for alternative sources of funds to become self-sustaining must be stepped up.
The appointment of a new marketing and fundraising executive during the year was aimed at varying and increased our fundraising and communication activities, alongside marketing. The charity has innovated here, but there is still a long way to go. Having cut back on attending some of the less effective riverside events, we are hosting open days on Thames Venturer to show off our services more directly to new clients as well as members of the community. Among our traditional events, Walton Heritage Day in September, with Thames Venturer in attendance, was its usual success and we took Thames Venturer to Richmond for The Great River Race, where we gave guests a great afternoon on the boat – and made a healthy income.
We have been experimenting with other forms of fund-earning, recognising that the boat is a significant asset. Private bookings increased last year (for evening and weekend use outside core charitable time) and we welcome this trend. Some initiatives have proved a little too hard for us just now – for example the use by the boat by a local supper club which required very late hours; others have been successful – for example working more closely with local Rotary Clubs.
One piece of individual fundraising warrants a very special mention. Peter Oldham took up a fundraising challenge of cycling the Etape du Tour (stage 20 of the Tour de France). The outcome: £5000 and, from Peter, a promise to fund the competition entry for another challenge bike ride – provided someone other than he takes part.
Matched funding for our development plans has continued – we continue to be extremely grateful to those who have made construction of a new boat possible – with the result that our development funds were healthy and needed less priority in the 2016-17 year than in the prior year. Our future fundraising needs in this area will be assessed when the current project is complete.