BBS volunteers. David Tipling
BBS Volunteers. David Tipling

Promoting BTO science — walking the line

Ieuan Evans asks if we can we move and inspire people with passionate, powerful communications without compromising our impartiality and scientific credentials

Ieuan Evans

Director of Engagement

Ieuan works with a team of staff in BTO's Communications department and a large network of volunteer regional representatives to recruit and engage with members and volunteers across the UK.

I am often asked how many staff BTO employs and more often than not, people express surprise when I tell them that we are an organisation of around 100 — they almost always assume we must be bigger. Around half of our income of approximately £6 Million comes from membership subscriptions, donations, legacies and grants. Most of the rest is earned from contract work carried out on behalf of the government, statutory agencies and commercial organisations. will be necessary for us to be crystal clear about the difference we are seeking to make in the world and to communicate the impact we have in ways that win over people's’ hearts and minds; after all, people will only support what they care about. Ieuan Evans 

Like many other charities, we are feeling the pinch of cuts to public sector funding. Not only are there fewer contracts, but these days those contracts tend to be shorter and more prescriptive, meaning there is less certainty for staff and less time for publishing results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Our best predictions are that this trend in contract volume and format is unlikely to reverse in the near future so if we are to survive, the business model which has supported us so well for so long needs tweaking.

At the same time, the natural environment is under more pressure than ever before, public trust in charities is at an all-time low and science is under attack. There has never been a more important time for us to be advocating for our science, providing rigorous long-term evidence about the state of our planet and how society could respond to these changes.

It is against this backdrop that we must forge a new path. As an organisation we are already in transition, moving slowly but surely away from a reliance on increasingly volatile contract income towards a more traditional fundraising-based model. This shift requires bigger organisational changes than may at first glance seem necessary. In order to achieve this switch successfully, it will be necessary for us to be crystal clear about the difference we are seeking to make in the world and to communicate the impact we have in ways that win over people's’ hearts and minds; after all, people will only support what they care about.

There are two core values which have underpinned BTO’s approach from the beginning: firstly, that all of our work will be conducted with the highest possible scientific rigour; and secondly, that we will always be impartial - we will not lobby or campaign. I hope you will be reassured to know that these values remain at our heart today and we are still very proud of them. But they also present us with a real challenge if we are to step up our engagement with people. In motivating people to participate in our work through our surveys and schemes, we need to strike the right balance between making our offerings enticing and engaging and delivering great scientific outputs. We will have to work harder at translating our scientific work into plain English and at ensuring that it results in real-world impact. And while we need to ramp up the language and the visuals we use to communicate our passion for birds, ornithology and science, we must not allow the use of emotive language or imagery to bring our impartiality into dispute. Our ability to deliver robust scientific evidence that we can analyse and interpret to produce independent assessments and recommendations sets us apart.

In my discussions with BTO supporters around the country I hear a lot of support for our stance, but I also hear frustrations that we don’t shout loudly enough for our work to have the impact we desire. Personally, I feel there is still so much more we could achieve if we were to communicate in more powerful ways about birds, our science and the amazing members and volunteers who make our work possible. I think we should be much more vocal about our work, becoming stronger advocates for science and the contribution BTO can make. We need government ministers, MPs and civil servants to know who we are and what we do. We need the public to know we are here and relevant to them. Please take a look at our first ever which describes in more detail how we think we can ratchet up BTO’s public profile and societal impact, and how you could help us. I strongly believe that by keeping BTO’s values in mind, we can achieve all of these things without compromising our impartial, non-campaigning stance.
An Agenda for Change

I would really value your views on the way forward for BTO communications; where do you think our strengths and weaknesses are? Where do you think the biggest opportunities are for BTO? Do you agree that we should be engaging more with politicians?

BTO is a membership organisation that relies heavily on the support of volunteers and as it continues to develop, the thoughts and opinions of our members and volunteers will play an important part in shaping our future. I hope that this blog will be the first of many that create more opportunities for us to hear from you, to hear what you think about our organisation, the wider environmental sector, and how we can best help society respond to the challenges ahead.

Ieuan Evans, 01 May 2019

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