If you enjoy walking thank a Rambler

It could be a symptom of being educated by the Jesuits but I really enjoy looking at organisations and trying to work out what is happening and why. So I was happy when the Ramblers Board of Trustees asked me to undertake a review of the organisation. Over my next few blogs I’ll explore some of the themes of the review.

There is a great bumper sticker, which reads, “If you can read this bumper sticker thank a teacher”. I’d like one that reads, “If you enjoy walking and appreciating your surroundings thank a Rambler”. I recently acquired a series of old Ramblers badges to protect. They are a reminder of the many achievements of the last 77 years.

Ramblers badgeIt’s hard to imagine what the world was like without the right to roam, national trails, and even rights of way on the Ordnance Survey maps. All things the Ramblers can be proud of.

Of course, no organisation can expect to thrive because people are grateful. Every day it’s clear that we need to continue our work. To do that we need to work out how we attract support from new generations of walkers. We need to do this in a way that safeguards the values that first brought us together in association.

I’ve written before about finding Ramblers more diverse and extensive than it first appears. There are thousands of volunteers whose hard work allows us to contribute enormously to local communities; from protecting footpaths to helping people to start walking. These highly skilled and committed volunteers are one of our main strengths. Our proven track record and ability to campaign balances our expertise in delivering projects designed to help people start walking and facilitate our extensive guided walks programme. All this is underpinned by the clear route back to our original mission and the goodwill of our many affiliates and allies.

Like so many charities, the global financial crisis hit Ramblers hard. Spending programmes and financial controls that seemed OK in 2007 became a liability in 2009. Since then there has been substantial progress in addressing problems in financial and management controls. The emphasis in the next few years will be on increasing the impact of the money we spend. Through our Get Walking Keep Walking project in England, Ramblers has learnt how to run walking related projects.

Health walkAnd how! Get Walking became an exemplar of how to deliver walking projects and was recognised by the World Health Organisation. This is an area of work with a strong link to the original values of getting people walking, and one I am surprised Ramblers wasn't earlier involved in. The achievements of Get Walking Keep Walking were successfully used to secure the coordination of the English and Welsh Walking for Health Projects.

The other good thing in the last year has been the signing of new devolution agreements within Ramblers GB which have created the potential for clarity in the relationship between Ramblers GB, Ramblers Cymru (RC) and Ramblers Scotland (RS) and the development of thriving unique entities in all three nations of Great Britain, connected together by common values and aspiration.

There is, of course, a “but”. Unfortunately what happened within Ramblers mirrors society; reforms and cost cutting has come with a down side, involving concern, conflict and personal pain for staff and volunteers alike. We cannot avoid more change. It is inevitable because the world is constantly changing politically, technologically, economically and socially.

A quick look in the archives will tell you that Ramblers tends to respond slowly to emerging patterns in the external world and what happened in 2009 seems to reflect a common pattern within Ramblers; of being forced to change by external circumstance, instead of adapting gradually. We have failed to develop ourselves sufficiently into a proactive organisation that can perpetually evolve, able to avoid unnecessary risk, take opportunities and create a sustainable base for the future. This has meant that there are many people and bodies within Ramblers who operate at a very high level of effectiveness, but who remain as pockets of best practice rather than being integrated into a support and coordination system that raises best practice overall.

Benedict walking in Kings Wood, KentWhile changing activities can do some of this, we also require changes in culture to increase the participation of walkers in decision-making. We also need to reduce the emotional and transaction costs of achieving change.

In future blogs I'll talk about how I think we can strengthen our democracy to help with that. To make the most of our potential we need a clear picture of where we are going. This will allow us to build long-term change processes so we are not surprised again and we don't leave people behind. Without that picture, or vision, there is a weak link between the mission and subsequent plans.

I’m constantly amused by the fact that the 2002 – 2007 strategic plan “bringing Ramblers into the 21st Century” has yet to be implemented. I did say I was educated by the Jesuits! I’m not so amused by being referred back to structures and ways of working that have not formally existed for a decade or more. Nor with the fact that we have allowed perceptions to build up that somehow Ramblers is turning its back on its mission. Not on my watch.

Now planning, of course, sends most people to sleep and so it tends to be done by the few, while most people get on with walking. So in the future, we are going to have a participatory process, one that involves more people (members, volunteers, supporters and walkers) in a dialogue, using open questions. In time for our 80th anniversary we will bring a new vision to the General Council for approval.

The challenge we face is to cut through that complexity so that the fun and achievement of our work in the three nations of Great Britain shines through. I’m up for that challenge so I’m delighted to say that after a six month probationary period I have been confirmed as the Chief Executive of Ramblers. 

Benedict is chief executive of the Ramblers. You can follow him on twitter @BenedictSouthWO.