Learning from National Trust

What’s the problem?

I couldn’t believe the traction that the National Trust ‘story’ gained over the weekend, with the Daily Mail headline on Saturday being Mutiny at the National Trust. There’s slightly more to it than some volunteers in Norfolk refusing to wear a pride-themed badge, in that allegedly some of them refused in protest as they felt the organisation had ‘outed’ Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, who bequeathed the Norfolk property to the Trust. Through a video titled ‘The Unfinished Portrait’ the Trust looks at Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer’s life and achievements, and it notes that he was openly gay among those who were close to him. The video also suggests that he was engaged in equality legislation, showing a Government document (the Wolfenden Report) containing recommendations to decriminalise homosexuality – this was in 1957, 10 years before the Sexual Offences Act came into place.

Given that he lived during a time when being gay was a criminal offence (he died two years after the Act was introduced), it is no surprise that he was – as his relatives and godchildren state – “intensely private”. If he was alive today, I wonder what Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer would make of the cultural changes and increased acceptance of LGBTQ issues over recent decades.


How the National Trust managed the issue

Initially the National Trust defended the video and their asking volunteers in public-facing roles to wear the badge as part of their Prejudice and Pride campaign. As the video states, “To do anything less would be to suggest that same sex love and gender diversity is wrong – we must challenge the prejudices of the past” (and if you look at some of the tabloid and Twitter outrage, some of the prejudices of today too).

However, yesterday afternoon the National Trust did a U Turn, stating that it is a personal choice for volunteers to wear the badge. This has been done in response to backlash such as “it’s a denial of volunteer rights” which is why it feels wrong to me: charities shouldn’t pander to the views of people who are not willing to support the values of equality and diversity – it’s 2017, 50 years after the legislation was put in place.

And let us remember that volunteers sign up to the founding principles of the Trust of “promoting equality of opportunity and inclusion”. Asking volunteers to wear this badge in public-facing roles is reasonable; it is not a political statement, it is part of a campaign which celebrates equality and diversity. The irony of the volunteer who stated “Now its motto is, ‘For ever, for everyone’ but clearly that’s not the case for volunteers with different views” has not been lost on me.

It’s true that some volunteers are no longer willing to work with the Trust and some have gone to the right wing press, because they do not wish to embrace this campaign. I think this further highlights the continued need for work around equality and diversity.


What could the National Trust have done differently?

  • External stakeholder engagement. It looks like they did this very well actually, working with Stonewall and the University of Leicester on campaign engagement. But did they underestimate the viewpoint of Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer’s relatives and godchildren? It sounds like they found out about it via the media and the video rather than being consulted beforehand.
  • Internal engagement with the campaign. Again, I imagine that this was done very well, but was volunteer input sought prior to campaign development and execution? I’m sure that the Trust know their volunteers’ views very well but perhaps these could have been managed as part of the internal launch.
  • Stick to core messaging. Although their campaign remains, their change with regards to volunteers wearing the badges now being optional says a lot about how (quite frankly) outdated views have ‘won’ over equality and diversity and it is for this reason that I’m disappointed that the organisation has publicly been seen to have made a U Turn; I feel that it should have ridden the non-story of the Daily Mail et al.

As all charities do, I’m sure that the National Trust values the enormous contribution that volunteers make to their organisation, but values need to be adhered to and this isn’t something that charities should compromise on – in many ways it’s what sets charities apart from other organisations.

I’ll be interested to see how things play out for the National Trust volunteer programme over the coming months – I imagine the overall impact will be minimal. But more interestingly, I’m keen to see how the LGBTQ community responds to this – if it sticks – and if it impacts of the Trust’s ability to tap into this audience.

Want to do something positive in response to all this? Why not sign up with the National Trust as a volunteer near where you live?

One thought on “Learning from National Trust

  1. Interesting post. From a PR perspective the poor handling of the National Trust highlights the importance of internal communications prior to any public launch. Your point about truly understanding your key stakeholders is imperative. I don’t think people are motivated to join the National Trust because they are passionate about equality . They naively underestamitated the potency of badge wearing. We would wish every national institution to embrace equality and diversity but clearly a small number of their volunteer body feel uncomfortable with condoning same sex relationships. Had there been earlier discussions with staff and volunteers they may have been able to deal with those not truly signed up to their values away from the public’s glare. In the eventuality they were unprepared for the media storm and lost the courage of their conviction. The impact on their reputation – especially amongst the younger, non Daily Mail reading public – may take some rebuilding.

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