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Finance

Of Bitcoin & charities: A story about lifeboats

As a charity dedicated to providing volunteer search and rescue services around the coasts of the UK and Ireland, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) isn’t the first name that springs to mind when someone says “innovation”. But last year the 190-year-old organization became the first major UK charity to accept Bitcoins and moved into the cutting edge of 21st century financing.

“I think a lot of people's misconceptions about the RNLI is that it's just an old seafaring institution,” says Luke Williams, Social Media Innovation Officer at the RNLI. But he explains this isn’t the case at all and there’s more to the charity than lifeboats and sea rescues. “We have a history of innovation. We have a future trends group that looks at what things might happen in our environment in one, five, 10, 25, 50 years’ time.”

When the subject of Bitcoin & cryptocurrencies came up “we wanted to be ready for it,” continues Williams, “and we want to be able to accept donations in the way people want to give them.”

Soon after that, the RNLI created a Bitcoin Wallet and a dedicated donation page. Announced in late July, this made it the first UK charity to accept the digital currency and caused a stir in the press. This in turn translated into donations and in the first week the RNLI collected 4.442646165 BTC, or about £1500 ($2300) from over 130 sources. Today that figure stands at around £2500 ($3700), and over £100 ($150) in 2015 already.

“We have a history of innovation. We wanted to be ready for Bitcoin and accept donations in the way people want to give them.”

Aside from the money, a big boon from accepting Bitcoin are the new audiences. “We want to reach out to new supporters who might not be aware of our work but by saying, “Hey, we accept Bitcoin," they might take a look at the RNLI and go, "Whoa! These guys are someone I want to support long term," Williams says.

“We've had hundreds of Tweets about it and lots of messages on places like Reddit, where people have said they think it's great that we're doing this. We've also had loads of comments where people say, ‘I wasn't really aware of the RNLI before, I had a look and actually you guys do some great work’."

Williams says that in the week following the RNLI’s announcement, he was made aware of at least two other major charities who are in various stages of looking at Bitcoin, and in the months since, Greenpeace, the American Red Cross and Save the Children have all started accepting. “If it matches what they want to do, I think there's potential in the future for Bitcoin, particularly for more international-based charities in terms of being able to move money overseas,” explains Williams. Since then the company has added the ability to send donations through Tweets using Change Tip, but there’s no plans to expand to other Altcoins for now.

Behind the scenes

So why did the RNLI decide to embrace Bitcoin? “With the idea that it would happen at some point, we said, look, we could do a quick pilot really easily by just setting up a wallet, creating a page, having a little bit of info on there, and then just put it out there and see what happens.”

Obviously being a charity means the RNLI has a lot of stringent requirements to make sure the way the organisation is run is all above board, but Bitcoin’s sometimes dubious reputation didn’t cause an issue. “We put together a small team to look at what we would do if we had a donation [and] what we needed to be prepared for. We made sure we did all the right checks.”

In regards to the often volatile nature of Bitcoin’s value, the RNLI has a clear strategy of holding initially but converting once the BTC donation reaches a certain number. “We're quite comfortable holding it, we have investments in shares and currencies as part of our day-to-day running like any charity would,” he says. “We wanted to get the balance right - in a worst case scenario and the price of Bitcoin plummeted we didn't want to be holding them forever, or similarly they might go up.  We've looked at our risk profile and said this how we're handling it, this is the point at which we're comfortable.”

Internal education

Williams says that when the idea first came up, people were asking about its legality, HMRC's position, and how these are good things to know before you set up a wallet. “This [Bitcoin] is quite new - and internally some people weren't familiar with it as a technology and what it could potentially offer in the future. Giving that knowledge to other people was probably the biggest challenge.” As part of its introduction, Williams spoke to various internal audiences, made announcements via intranets as well as written education pieces for staff.  

The future of life-saving

The RNLI isn’t just exploring Bitcoins. “We've been finding new ways to save lives for a while,” explains Will Roberts, Innovation Manager at the RNLI. “But technology is moving at a pace and our organisation needs to learn what these technologies mean before we develop significant programs that realise new platforms.”

“There are things that we look at that may or may not become reality. At the moment we're looking at different technology areas, and the innovation program is the mechanism by which we can ask the question; "what does this new or emerging technology mean for the RNLI?" Emphasising that there are no commitments or definitives when looking at these technologies, he cites Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as an example.

"Some people internally weren't familiar with Bitcoin and what it could offer. Giving that knowledge to other people was probably the biggest challenge."

“What do UAVs or autonomous systems mean for us? What do they mean for our ability to communicate or increase coastal safety? How can these platforms be used to help our rescue service understand the risks an environment might pose before they start a life-saving operation?”

“UAVs have been used across a number of different sectors - conservation for example, for the identification of poachers in Africa. In search and rescue, if you've got someone who's gone overboard at sea, how can you use a fixed wing or rotary wing air vehicle to increase your chances of finding someone sooner before they're overcome by the powers of the waves? A UAV with heat seeking or Infra-Red capability, they could certainly help us find those people before that happens.

Williams sums up though that perhaps none of this news should be particularly surprising. “I think there is quite a general misconception about charities. As with any area of business or industry, some are ahead, some are behind, some are trying stuff, some aren't. I don't think that's any different in the charity sector to any other.”

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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