2015-2016 was in many ways an extraordinary year. Although cruise bookings – for older people and those living with disability – did not maintain the exceptional high numbers of the previous year, our river-based education activities continued to increase and overall our day-to-day work continued at a high level. The highlights of our operational work are described below with the statistical outcomes in the public benefit statement.
What truly distinguished this year, however, was the acceleration of our plans to bring on a custom-designed second boat for day cruising. At the time of articulating this ambition – at the 2014 AGM – we had confidence sufficient to proceed with a search for our ideal boat. Twelve months later – by the 2015 AGM – thanks to two unexpected personal donations, a matched funding agreement and a capital grant promised by the Veolia Environmental Trust, we were able not only to have the good fortune to say the boat was fully funded but had also started design work and selection of the building yard. We ended the financial year with a custom design (developed in consultation with key clients), a building contract in place and the funds to pay for it all.
As a consequence, our balance sheet is looking exceptionally strong and in the Statement of Financial Activities we are showing a very large income surplus. There were two further large gifts during the year – one aimed at the future refit of our current vessel, Thames Venturer. We consider ourselves very fortunate indeed and would like to extend a huge thank you to the individuals and organisations that have set us on the road to achieving two of our big dreams.
Financially, this is an exceptional, short-term position. Most of the money has been transferred, as intended, into the development fund set up the previous year. This fund will help pay for the new boat – design, build and all associated ancillary costs which are expected to be in total around £400 to £450k – and, once the new boat is complete, much of the costs of refit work to be carried out on Thames Venturer – which we are forecasting will be around £100k. Any money left in the fund after these two major projects will be earmarked for other development activities, for example, outcomes’ research programmes to analyse the impact of the charity’s work and where we should be putting most of our effort in the future.
This means that over the next two financial years we will see the balance sheet significantly re-adjust downwards as those funds are depleted. Our operational fundraising is not impacted and we will continue to place high emphasis on fundraising to ensure the affordability to clients of our services.
It only remains to say thank you again: to our funders, our clients, our staff, and of course to our loyal and hardworking volunteers. I hope you enjoy reading the rest of this report.
Louise Sibley, Chair of Trustees
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE YEAR
Cruises for vulnerable or disadvantaged people of all ages
After an exceptional 2014 summer season, our cruise bookings last summer fell back to the levels of previous years. In particular, there were only three residential cruises, one for a private party. However, we still spent a very respectable 84 days on the river with groups of older and vulnerable people, and continued in every way to provide them with special days and memorable experiences – as their comments in our visitors’ book show.
This fall in numbers may be a consequence of the switch to personal budgets for people living with a disability – in other words groups that book activities such as ours have smaller budgets. Another factor we are experiencing is the increase in age and frailty of some of the people in our client groups that may make a full day out on the river challenging. These are possible trends that we have to explore and the Directors are keeping a close eye on the outcomes of the 2016 season and the impact these trends may have on our traditional cruising model and pricing.
On a positive note, we continue to retain most of our customary clients and attract new ones, and we have some new cruise programme ideas in development. Our plans to bring some of these ideas to fruition in 2015 had to be set aside for a variety of reasons, not least the acceleration of plans for a second boat and the attention that has demanded. However, they remained in the pipeline and have been further developed during the 2016 season.
Static boats are increasingly occupying mooring spots so there is pressure on the tried and tested moorings we use for lunch stops. So Thames Venturer is trying out new places and has added Sunbury Town Quay to its accessible lunch stops – especially for our clients that only want short trips.
River-based education and environmental activities
In contrast to cruise bookings, demand for school and other education activities continued to grow – and was around 20% up on the previous year.
This was due to the increase in the number and quality of our education activities (made possible by a 3-year grant from the City Bridge Trust) and due to active marketing of those programmes direct to potential client groups, increasing their awareness of our educational offerings. Recent interest and growing awareness of the benefits of outdoor learning meant that, despite budget cuts, learning outside the classroom is still a highly valued activity.
School on the River and community youth group Environment Day bookings increased slightly, and our new Eco Venturers programme (launched in Kingston in March 2015) took off with 11 sessions being run for primary children at Kingston, Teddington and at our new site at Wapping near Tower Bridge. When at Wapping, the Venturer is moored at Hermitage Community Moorings, where last October we delivered week-long trial of Eco Venturers.
This is potentially a very positive development for the charity and we hope to repeat this week at Hermitage in the autumn of 2016 and grow it even further in 2017, if we can attract the client groups and schools. The Eco Venturers programme (primarily a set of practical lessons and exercises in environmental sustainability) was specially adapted to this central London site, to include Thames trade transport and river history at Wapping.
We welcomed new education clients that extend our reach into other London Boroughs. New Scout, Cub, Beaver and Woodcraft Folk Group clients enjoyed environmental activities on the boat and the shore side, designed to help them achieve their badges and awards. Our ‘Create a Safe Learning Environment Outside the Classroom’ training for student teachers was delivered to St Mary’s University in February and to a new client group from Wandsworth Primary Schools Consortium last September.
Finally, our charity is well on its way to becoming a hub for collecting ‘citizen science’ data about the health of our local rivers, one of our founder Martin Emerson’s wishes. Our staff and volunteers took part in 2 training programmes, each with up to 18 attendees, one last December for the Freshwater Watch programme (hosted by Earthwatch) and the other in February for the Thames Riverwatch programme (hosted by Thames 21). We started collecting pollutant, litter and turbidity data within Eco Venturers sessions in January 2016 and plan to continue throughout the year. The data from these new activities, along with data from our usual School on the River sessions, has been recorded and uploaded to both local and international river databases to be analysed by academics, scientists and policy makers.
We have found that our volunteers have enjoyed becoming “citizen scientists” and are keen to do more. The outcome is that we now have many volunteers able to lead these activities and with an increased knowledge and understanding of the river and the importance of the work we do.
Fundraising and events
A core value is that all our cruises and educational activities should be affordable to our client groups, many of whom are charities themselves. We charge a fee for the activity but it is only a small proportion of our costs and we fundraise the rest through traditional fundraising and applying for grants and. Several days, weekends and evenings every year – on and off the boat – are dedicated to public open events to encourage donations, build visibility in the community and attract new volunteers.
That said, in 2015 we cut back on some of the riverside events which, while important for our visibility in the community, are getting harder to run in terms of fundraising income. Sadly, our most worthwhile event in terms of both – the Teddington River Festival – was cancelled as the organisers themselves were finding the challenge too great.
However, Walton Heritage Day in September, with Venturer in attendance, was its usual success and we participated in the Totally Thames Festival by opening Venturer to the public, at the invitation of John Lewis in Kingston, which was celebrating its 25th Anniversary.
The Pavilion Leisure Club in East Molesey generously chose us as its’ charity of the year’ for fundraising at the Club’s annual Fun Day for families. We were delighted to be their beneficiary in 2015, a generous offer that was repeated in 2016.
Our other events were home-grown: a ‘Shake-Down’ supper on board for volunteers at the start of the season; a private Summer garden party generously hosted by long-term volunteer Elaine Russell, and our first Bangers and Fireworks evening for Guy Fawkes celebrations at Teddington, which was oversubscribed and a huge success.
Photography evening cruises continued this year, although the volunteers who have been running them since 2009 decided to make this their last year. Venturer Photography is still happy to respond to group requests for a themed evening cruise, but will no longer be organising set dates and ‘selling’ places.
The biggest fund-earner cruise of the year was the Friends’ weekend cruise to the Thames Barrier and back – marking a return to the City of London for Venturer after 10 years (and a dry run for the Education week later in the year) with ten Friends of RTBP on board enjoying a fully-catered ‘luxury’ cruise with special events, talks on board and the attendance of a team of volunteers to show off the unique Venturer experience.
The charity benefits greatly from the generous donations from foundations, trusts and individuals, including ‘Friends of the River Thames Boat Project’ a subscription scheme run by volunteers to provide financial support. As a result of the announcement at the 2014 AGM of the plan to commission a special vessel for our day cruises, the charity received a second major donation in April 2015, followed later in the year by a third, this time directed at the subsequent refit of Venturer. All three of these donations, plus a legacy received just at the end of the financial year, came from present or former volunteers. We are as honoured by this tribute to the charity’s work as we are grateful for their gifts.
Our other main income stream for subsidising our activities is grant funding. The research project into potential grant opportunities has yielded some new income, but the competition continues and a certain rate of attrition in grant application work is inevitable, meaning we must continue to build up our other sources of funds.
2015-16 was the final year of the three-year grant funding of City Bridge Trust, the City of London Corporation’s charity. This has made a major difference to the charity’s education programme, for which we have been enormously grateful. As it comes to an end we are reporting back on the considerable outcomes of receiving the grant and are looking for alternative means of supporting the ongoing work.
The charity continues to be particularly grateful to Richmond Parish Lands Charity and Hampton Fuel Allotment Charity for their continuing support of our cruises for older people and disabled people, and the additional money towards training and research given by RPLC.
As always, the directors extend a huge thank you to our 64 volunteers and our staff (now five in number, four in 2015-16) on whom the charity depends.
With our future plans gathering speed, our people focus in this year was capacity building and starting to prepare for a bigger operation to come. We restructured staff roles to accommodate the new boat project, clarify roles, introduce a succession position for education (with the current position due to finish at the end of the year) and create room in the employment budget for a new marketing position to be introduced in 2016.
The key change was elimination of the position of Executive Director, which carried operational as well as funding responsibility, with an interim structure put in place in which these responsibilities were allocated to members of the trustee board, and staff now report in to a designated member of the trustee board for guidance and general supervision. This has meant an increase in trustee responsibilities during our period of change and development, while we continue to assess what the charity’s future staff needs will be.
Miranda Jaggers moved from the executive director role to take charge of the design and construction of the new boat – a major project which carries a bigger financial responsibility than the annual charity operational budget. The trustee board felt strongly that Miranda was the best person for this key role, given her 25 years’ history of building the charity and working with Thames Venturer. She retains, in addition, responsibility for grant funding and community liaison.
Peter Oldham is the primary staff member in charge of day-to-day operations of our boat, under the direction of the Operations Committee. He is supported by Pippa Butterfield managing the office, including client bookings and finance. We were also delighted to retain Gemma, whose role as Environmental Education Coordinator came to an end this year, in the new position of Education and Learning Manager. This role recognised both her achievements of the past three years and the growing importance and proportion of the charity’s work in this area.
We also identified the need to step up our marketing and fundraising work and at the end of the year started recruiting to a new part-time role for this purpose. We have been very pleased to welcome Sonja Freebody, an experienced charity fundraiser, to this role in the current financial year.
We have taken this opportunity to re-write all staff contracts to align terms and conditions, and introduce a new staff handbook to bring us into compliance with current employment practice. Thanks are owed to Jon Chapman for his detailed work on this.
There has been strong attention paid to training needs, from skill development in education for volunteers to new systems’ training and change planning workshops for staff.
Finally, well ahead of our statutory auto-enrolment date, we introduced a staff pension scheme and have enrolled all staff members into this.
Following the staff restructuring we started to look at the impact on volunteers. Over winter 2015/16 we carried out a review which resulted in re-writing the boat diary program to allow for multiple roles and users.
This is only the start of considering our volunteer needs in the future and we continue to make this a key focus in planning. Our volunteers are critical and high on our list of priorities to address is how we consult, offer different roles and skills development pathways in the charity, manage and recognise their work and generally meet their needs. The Operations Committee includes a volunteer representative and we encourage all volunteers to come to us with their thoughts and feedback at any time. Many of our volunteers take on multiple roles and for the 2015-16 year, we would particularly like to acknowledge Julian Galpin again for his IT work and Pete Gallon for his untiring help with maintenance.
Improvements and maintenance
At this time only general maintenance and necessary improvements to Thames Venturer are being undertaken – as a more ambitious plan for a refit is due in a couple of years’ time. To allow both tanks to be emptied using our shore-side facility some new plumbing of the pump-out pipework was needed; fixes were required to the steering gear; a new VHF radio which incorporates a public address system was installed. This also gives the crew hands free communication with the wheelhouse.
Thanks again for all the volunteer help involved.
In the office, we conducted a vital – and extremely work-intensive – overhaul, with new systems covering an update to most of our core IT. This was required to bring us into full security compliance and address aging issues. We also brought a new booking and crew scheduling system into full utilisation.
We have bought a new Hudl tablet for on-board use during cruises and education activities and have this on trial for different purposes. The availability of onboard tablets potentially enables greater working flexibility – including for online monitoring and passenger statistics, and provides a resource for our education work.
The critical building block for the vision laid out by the Directors in 2011 is now in place. We are on the way to owning our own custom-designed day boat. This vessel will offer standard sized wheelchair access, an induction loop to aid hearing-impaired people, a well-designed and lit interior to help sight-impaired people, a large saloon with good visibility for all-weather cruising and enhanced facilities for engaging our clients in the operation of the boat. It will allow us to cruise waters inaccessible by Thames Venturer, thus potentially extending our geographic reach and offering different cruising opportunities to our existing clients.
It will also look beautiful. One of our key design principles – developed in consultation with our volunteers and our client groups – is that our passengers should feel great about being on this boat, as they do on Venturer. Wheelchair and disability access should not have to give way to aesthetics: ‘Wow’ factor and personality are important.
Getting to this stage – construction work is starting down in Cornwall as this report is published – has engaged every member of staff and several of the trustees. None more so than the new boat team – David Bell, Miranda Jaggers, Peter Low and Peter Oldham – who we can thank for the detailed work involved in choosing the naval architect, Graham Westbrook, for bringing to completion the design and technical specification for the boat and for recommending the yard, C Toms and Sons Ltd, a family firm in Cornwall. Jon Chapman, Miranda, Keith Knox, Peter Low and Byron Turner were involved in the tendering and contracting process and in the financial work to underpin the build. Special thanks are owing to Barrister Tim Young and our surveyor Stefan Fritz for their professional advice. From the initial search for the ideal boat, to the start of build has been a lengthy process – over 18 months – but we are very pleased with the outcomes.
We still have much to do. A full review of operations is underway and will be stepped up over the coming winter. This will cover the boat management systems, volunteer requirements and training, the booking model and pricing and emergency procedures.
Our first objective is successfully to introduce a second boat into our operations. With the increased capacity, we aim to offer a wider range of cruising, education and learning opportunities to our clients and our volunteers, and achieve greater financial efficiencies in our back office work. When that is achieved, we will step up programme development and research because our ultimate goal is a charity that offers clear therapeutic and educational outcomes through river-based activities for people of all ages.