Case Study: How the British Ecological Society are Approaching Income Diversification (Interview)
Case Study: How the British Ecological Society are Approaching Income Diversification (Interview)
https://asa1cadmoremedia.blob.core.windows.net/asset-0379982c-57c8-4b49-9d87-489ca1eb48cc/Paul Bower (edited).mp4
SAM BURRELL: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us for this Society Street session, which picks up on some of the ideas that we talked about in March on income diversification. I'm with Paul Bower from The British Ecological Society who I met in the Q&A session at the March event, and, well, I think you'll see why we wanted to set up this conversation with him. So without further ado: Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to come and chat to us.
PAUL BOWER: Thank you.
SAM BURRELL: We really appreciate it. So I wanted to start off by asking you to tell us about your role. Why did the British Ecological Society decide they needed somebody for this role, and when was it? So tell us a bit about what you're doing and how it fits.
PAUL BOWER: It's a really quite interesting story because -- a little bit of context here, Sam. The British Ecological Society is the world's oldest, and Europe's largest, community of ecological scientists. We were formed in 1913, we publish eight scientific journals, we do a great deal of public engagement and education work. And it's a financially solid organization. Around six to seven years ago the Trustees started thinking about the issue of diversification because 80% of our income is generated by publications.
PAUL BOWER: They were far-sighted enough to think about the future when the publishing model changed, and they couldn't necessarily rely on that income. So it was horizon scanning, and it wasn't a response to a problem, which, for me, working there, is quite exciting, because normally, as a marketer and a fundraiser, you're brought in at the last minute when there's a bit of a crisis, so that was not the-- that was not the case with British Ecological Society.
PAUL BOWER: They commissioned some consultancy on what the role might be, and then they came to a decision to employ someone on a three year contract, to test the water. They understood that they needed someone new in the team, and it wasn't something that could be just tacked onto someone else's job description. And I saw the advert basically--
SAM BURRELL: Before we talk about you, because I think that's interesting too, what's the brief for the role? What's the one liner?
PAUL BOWER: Well, the brief for the role is to maximize revenue through existing channels, and develop new channels, with the long term aspiration of making the British Ecological Society less reliant on publishing income.
SAM BURRELL: So it is literally -- it's about income diversification -- any kind of income. Your brief was ...
PAUL BOWER: Yeah, so I mean, there's two general elements to that. One is budget enhancement where we've been able to bring in money to enhance, and increase existing work. And one is the long term aspiration of a budget substitution. So if there was a crash in the publications market we wouldn't be caught napping as it were, and there has been no crash in the publications.
PAUL BOWER: But it's tightened particularly because of COVID, but again it's about looking for the future. So anyone thinking about this, my take on that is that they shouldn't wait until they have a problem.
SAM BURRELL: Yeah, so clearly you've done some good in your role because you said that it was a three year contract, and that was some years ago: and you're still here. I want to come back to what you've done, and how you've developed. But I'm also interested to hear about you, and your profile and who you were. And why they thought you might be a good fit for the role, because you're not if you don't mind my saying, I already know because we had a chat before this conversation,
SAM BURRELL: you're not the cookie cutter of what one might expect to find in a Learned Society.
PAUL BOWER: No, I think that's why they employed me. I mean, my background is in marketing events management, bid writing, and band management. I managed the famous and quite successful pop group ABC in the '80s, and we had a number one album. We knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts. We knocked Bad off the charts, all in one week. And "When Smokey Sings" which was a tribute to the great Smokey Robinson.
PAUL BOWER: We sold about 300,000 copies of that single. And it got to number six in the charts, so happy days. I also played in a band but that was before that. So I have a wide portfolio. I worked at the Millennium Dome as a partnership manager for the greater London area, working not just on ticket sales generation, but also on a lot of the social programs like the Children's Promise giving program with Marks & Spencers.
PAUL BOWER: I ran National Construction week for four years. I worked at a branding agency on The Strand, which is part of Omnicom, for two years. And I did some freelance events management for the Canadian Tourist Board. And then only gradually did I start getting posts in the charitable sector, where I was doing more bid writing. I would say my knowledge of ecology before I started the job,
PAUL BOWER: was somewhere a little bit lower than the average 10-year-old at that point. But they obviously knew who I was. I never claimed to know a great deal about ecology, other than that I was committed to it. And I'm committed to the promotion of science, and a rational approach to problems and the world. So I never hid my lack of knowledge of ecology from them.
PAUL BOWER: So I'm not an ecologist, I've learned more since.
SAM BURRELL: Did you know anything about learned societies?
PAUL BOWERS: No.
SAM BURRELL: No. So actually you knew nothing about either of those things. Either the type of organization it was, or indeed the scientific area in which it operates. But you still--
PAUL BOWERS: I did some research so before--
SAM BURRELL: Obviously.
PAUL BOWERS: --before the interview. And I could see that one thing that they needed to do was to generate more income around their annual meeting. That came as a shock to me, that an event with like 1,500 people coming from all over the world, was called a meeting. To me it was a major international conference. But it was explained to me, no Paul, scientists always call them meetings, even if there's 10,000 people there. So I did research around that. But I was entirely, completely new, to the area.
PAUL BOWERS: And I actually think that, that was possibly one of-- they probably saw that as a plus. I think for two reasons. Firstly, because I was bringing new skills and a new perspective. And then the second thing is, because I'm not a scientist (my background is in marketing and to a certain extent modern languages) is I'm not going to give them my opinion on ecology, because I don't have one.
PAUL BOWERS: My opinion is about how we talk about it, how we promote it, how we get it front of mind, and how we raise the profile of the British Ecological Society, which has, for 100 years, been known and respected within the academic community. But it wasn't known that much outside. So part of my job was to talk to people about the BES, outside that world. So that was me: no learned society experience, no science experience.
SAM BURRELL: So I guess I want to go on to so having got this role. So I think it's really interesting that the British Ecological Society invented the role in the first place. And also then they appointed somebody who is from a different background. How did you approach this problem that you'd been challenged? What kind of ways did you think about it?
SAM BURRELL: What did you explore and what did you decide to prioritize? When you first got into it. Talk me through your thinking about what you did.
PAUL BOWERS: Well I'd already done some preparatory work, because there was a gap of about five weeks between me getting the job and actually starting. But the first thing that I looked at was: what were the existing products? That I could either monetize for the first time, or look at increasing income from. And that was advertising in what was then the British Ecological Society Bulletin,
PAUL BOWERS: and which is now a quarterly membership magazine The Niche, which goes out to nearly 7,000 ecologists worldwide every quarter. So advertising, and also annual meeting, both in terms of sponsorship and in terms of exhibitions. Now, when I worked with the branding agency, I'd worked in sponsorship, because we landed some big contracts with government conferences,
PAUL BOWERS: and I brought in people like HP Microsoft, Oracle. I don't know anything about computing either, but I know what computing and IT companies are looking for in terms of engagement. And also when I was at the Millennium Dome I worked with Coca-Cola. Excuse me, so two things: exhibitions and also sponsorship. I'm aware an ethical sponsor might want their brand attached to the annual meeting stroke international conference of the British Ecological Society.
PAUL BOWERS: So the first thing was to look at what we were doing already. And how to increase that revenue. Benchmarking against other similar events, not necessarily I might add learned societies. And doing two things, one was to put all of the prices up, at some point, by over 200%. We were basically giving it away, which kind of upset me as a fundraiser, this price is too low.
PAUL BOWERS: We're a charity, but we're a charity to look after ecologists. Not a charity to give virtually free space to other brands or to publishers. To put the prices up, but also to provide a service. Because if you're putting the prices up, you have to be customer focused. Now that's something that I've always been and it's always been in my mentality.
PAUL BOWERS: And you prioritize your customers, and you look after them. Because they're spending their marketing budget, it's not a gift. And sometime some Learned Societies ... the BES have been pretty good on this. They really understand that this is not a donation to further science. This is a mutually beneficial business relationship, and they need value from you.
PAUL BOWERS: They need you to get back to them quickly, if they've got an issue. And although it's always difficult to prove conclusively return on investment, when someone is an exhibition stand, they need their stats, they need the metrics. And so look after them, they're not exactly my children, my exhibitors or sponsors. But they know that they can contact me any time.
PAUL BOWERS: The first thing you look at what you've already got, and then start looking at other ways of generating income. With less risk, managing the risk, and not necessarily spending a lot of money. So the next thing that I went onto, and this is really, really, long term. And it's difficult to get a handle on when this money will come in, and how much of it will, was wills, and legacies.
PAUL BOWERS: As I'm sure a lot of people watching this interview will know, individual donations have fallen in the last few years and that's pre COVID. But gifts in wills, and legacies have increased, and it's a huge market. I think it's over £3 billion a year is actually bequeathed to charities. And so I looked at that and identified through often reading other people's research,
PAUL BOWERS: that the main barrier to people leaving money in their will, was they just don't get around to it. It's time consuming, partly they don't want to confront the inevitability of their own demise, but partly is, they'll go "oh god I'm taking a day off to go into a solicitors at the other side of the city." And so I looked at the whole issue of online wills.
PAUL BOWERS: I was totally skeptical about it when I started. But then I started working with farewill.com who are the UK's largest provider of online wills. And we started by providing a free will service to our members, which we then expanded through targeted marketing to non-members who have an interest in--
SAM BURRELL: The wider community, yeah.
PAUL BOWERS: The wider ecological community, the wider community around sustainability. And we're at nearly £400,000 in pledges, so far. A little bit of a health warning on that. Everybody in wills and legacies knows that, that's not cash in the bank. It's only cash in the bank when it comes through. But I think that did two things. One, it established in the minds of the trustees that I was looking long term.
PAUL BOWERS: Because this is money which might mature in 2060, 2070. And I think the other thing was that it was letting them know, letting the wider world and our membership know, that we were a charity. And we were an organization that was geared to receive legacies from wills, and we knew what to do with it in terms of investing it in our education and public outreach work. And so my call to action, which I've developed, which stuck.
PAUL BOWERS: -- and apologies to Star Trek, it's stolen from Star Trek -- was Ecology: The Next Generation. And so the call to action was not just give us some money, please. It was "your gift will help us nurture the next generation of ecologists." I think that I would say that, that's been successful. And one of the trustees actually came up to me, Andy O'Neill.
PAUL BOWERS: He said, "Paul, I owe you an apology." "Why?" He said, "Remember three years ago I said that nobody is going to leave us a -- a gift in their wills and mention Ecology Society, well I was wrong wasn't I?" And I said, "well yeah, but I didn't know either." The other thing about online wills is you're not investing. And you're not risking a lot of your marketing spend.
PAUL BOWERS: So there was that. I tried merchandising. Merchandising didn't work. We couldn't get the volume right, but we may be revisiting that just in terms of a really limited range. And that's more about building the ecological community and the brand.
SAM BURRELL: I was just going to say that's brand awareness stuff, isn't it really as much--
PAUL BOWERS: Brand awareness. I think one of the other things which was problematic, but we've eventually got there, was the whole program around asking members to top up their annual membership fee with a donation. Now our membership fees are very low, that's just a historical issue. But giving people the opportunity to top up automatically when they get on their computer,
PAUL BOWERS: by £5, I think it's £5, £10, £20, or "Surprise us" is the other thing. "Surprise us", and that's been successful, that's generated several thousand pounds a year. And again people said "our members don't have much money." I said, "most of them don't, but some of them do." And several members have put in an extra £100 pounds, and extra £200. And getting the functionality issues right there was difficult.
PAUL BOWERS: Because obviously, the membership fee is not gift aid-able, but the donation element is gift aid-able. But we've got there, we've started. We've now got a system in motion where members or people attending our events can put some money into the pot. When I started -- because in my background I had worked with corporate partnerships, and worked with major brands --
PAUL BOWERS: -- what I know about major brands is, they're fine about a "no", they can understand a "no". But what they can't understand or tolerate is you say, "Well that's a really interesting proposition can I get back to you in four months after the next Board of trustees meeting?" So what I suggested to our CEO Dr. Hazel Norman was that we would develop a corporate partnership sign off protocol.
PAUL BOWERS: Effectively what it means is very, very simple. I have a conversation with someone, I then get back to Hazel or head of our team Jonathan. I say "what do you think about this? I've written it out, it's one side of A4," and they say "that sounds interesting." We then get back to the relevant committee, or if it's a major issue the board of trustees. And with a paper, and then I think it's 10 working days by email.
PAUL BOWERS: If you don't get back to us, then we will take that as a we're fine to proceed. And they know that it's not just me going off on one and with a crazy idea, and then pushing it forward and representing their society. Because it is their society, it's not mine. They know that it's gone through a process of our CEO Dr. Hazel Norman looking at it, and then we take it forward.
PAUL BOWERS: And so far there's been no--
SAM BURRELL: So you get out of the whole committee decision making process. You've made a shorter process to enable decision making to happen more quickly?
PAUL BOWERS: Decision making to happen quickly. But still, with the trustees knowing that they are in control. And if one trustee got back and said "I'm not comfortable with this. We need it to go to committee," it goes to committee.
SAM BURRELL: And then presumably it does take longer. And you have to get back to whoever it is and go "bear with us."
PAUL BOWERS: Yeah well one issue around that, which was working with Farewill and the whole wills and legacies. And the risk assessment issue, particularly around reputational issues. And one thing that we did, and I spent quite a bit of money on this, was that I filled in a will on Farewill. I've already got a will, as it turns out. Then that goes to Farewill to check that it's legally consistent.
PAUL BOWERS: Their legal advisors check it, and then they send it back to you. I then sent that to our lawyers, this is what my CEO Hazel asked me to do. But I had to then put together a whole paper to the board, explaining why we were doing it. What was the rationale and the business case for spending time on this? And also what was the process, and the due diligence that I'd done on Farewill?
PAUL BOWERS: Because there was a certain amount of -- not concern, but -- caution. That paper went through board in three minutes. But there are some, what I'm saying is that basically there are some times when they need the board paper. And they need it because it's a major strategic departure for the organization. And so that then from the point of view of you go back and check that everything-- we tried-- if something went wrong, which I'm sure it won't.
PAUL BOWERS: Future trustees will know that this was investigated properly.
SAM BURRELL: It's an interesting point, isn't it? Because I think you've touched on the corporate partnerships thing a number of times in this conversation. And I think that's something that many societies are very wary and nervous of. Because -- of exploring-- because of the brand reputational issues. Of both their society and a potential corporate partner. Which is where I guess your decision making process allows them to let you explore that.
SAM BURRELL: Without ceding control, I'm thinking you mentioned that you'd worked with Coca-Cola in the past. I imagine Coca-Cola is not going to be a good corporate partner fit for the British Ecological Society.
PAUL BOWERS: No I wouldn't be ringing them. Even if they rang me, it'd be a quality problem to get that call, but it wouldn't work.
SAM BURRELL: But that's what I mean, is that there's-- and particularly if you look at life science societies, that butt up against the pharmaceutical industry, there's a whole bunch of issues. So it depends on what you're doing, and where you are, and what corporate partnerships--
PAUL BOWERS: The Royal Biological Society do work with major pharmaceutical companies. They have corporate members and they're quite open about it. I talked to them about it, and about how they manage that relationship. And their take on it was that we were completely open about their involvement, and that's the issue. That wouldn't work for us, we're a different kind of society, we wouldn't go in that direction. We're more likely to be working with equipment suppliers.
PAUL BOWERS: People like Wildlife Acoustics who are based in Massachusetts, and also have brands over here, or NHBS, National History Bookshop, big publishers -- we do a lot of work with Oxford University Press, and Wiley -- equipment suppliers, and so forth. I'm in a conversation with a series of people in the construction industry around green building and biodiversity. We've recently won a grant from the Span Trust which is a tax in Span Group of property developers, and architects.
PAUL BOWERS: So there's scope, but there are some brands where we just would not.
SAM BURRELL: Wouldn't go near, yeah.
PAUL BOWERS: We wouldn't go near but I wouldn't-- I'd say "thank you for your call. But it's really not going to work." Because obviously the concern among our membership of greenwashing. And in terms of our investment policy, which I don't actually directly deal with, that's dealt with by our CEO and the finance committee. We follow the EIRAS guidelines that's E-I-R-A-S and that's around ethical investment.
PAUL BOWERS: And also we don't invest in companies which generate more than a third of their turnover from extraction of hydrocarbons. And I think also extraction mining, which is an interesting one. Because what would happen, if for instance, Total got in touch with me. Now Total are also the world's largest generator of sustainable energy, as well as being an oil company.
PAUL BOWERS: And my answer to that is, it's a quality problem. I'd talk to them, I'd have that conversation openly letting them know that I am not the decision maker. That's got to be clear within that conversation. And then I'd have that conversation with Hazel, who might just say,
SAM BURRELL: "No."
PAUL BOWERS: "Great work Paul, it's not going to work. I know you" -- and then that's the end of the discussion. Or she might say "write a paper, let's explore it." That's an example when it would have to go have to go to the board.
SAM BURRELL: There's a lot to explore in your job. I mean I think the sense that I'm getting is that there's been a lot of work for you to do since you've been in the role. And having a full time person has been a good thing. I mean I'm hearing all the things you're doing. And going I can't imagine fitting that into another job in an organization that's already got people at capacity.
PAUL BOWERS: And I write bids as well, and make the tea.
SAM BURRELL: And make the tea!
PAUL BOWERS: And organize staff parties as well. But then I've been involved in bid writing, and also putting together a bursary program, with my colleague Dr. Chris Jeffs -- he's one of our great public engagement team. He's a passionate entomologist and ecologist. And I think for me the bursary schemes have been the thing that give me the most personal pleasure.
PAUL BOWERS: We were approached by an ecological consultancy with around 40 staff, based in the East Midlands. They wanted to support young ecologists. And we work with them, we're putting together a bursary scheme which Chris Jeffs runs. And effectively that's mentoring and also being able to draw down over two years. From a pot of £2000 to pay for things like attending conferences, equipment.
PAUL BOWERS: We don't just sign them the cheque, by the way. And just support, the professional development support as well as funding. And I manage the relationship with Ecological Resources Limited and their chief executive and founder John Condren. Who is a fascinating character who was brought up on a council estate in Pimlico, then ended up working at Jersey Zoo.
PAUL BOWERS: [Gerald] Durrell had just died and he was working at Chester zoo, and then he started his own company. And he was a council estate boy who wanted to give something back. And he wanted to feel that he was doing something. But also, he's a businessman and he wants an answer quickly. He doesn't want to hang around, he wants a yes or no, and he wants to do it, and I've worked on that relationship.
PAUL BOWERS: And now they've increased to 10,000 pounds a year the amount they put into bursaries. And we can see from the testimonials that we get back from the young people from low income backgrounds -- because that was one of the criteria -- the impact that it's made on their lives. And John gave one of the bursary winners a job, she couldn't believe it.
PAUL BOWERS: She just thought she was going to be doing another two internships. She's got a job on like 30 grand a year or something, and she's absolutely delighted. So from that process, that came from a letter from John Condren after he'd seen my Ecology The Next Generation Christmas appeal.
SAM BURRELL: Oh brilliant.
PAUL BOWERS: He said, "I want to do something." That's another thing: you've got to be able to be nimble and respond to opportunities. "I've got that", I said "give that letter to me, please. I'll deal with that." I'm on the phone straightaway. "John there's a lot of things that you're suggesting that don't fit with us. But let's talk." So now from that process -- to backtrack slightly to the bursaries -- we've now got a tried and tested robust model of managing bursaries.
PAUL BOWERS: Which covers issues around financial management, due diligence, safeguarding as well when you're dealing with younger people. Because some of the smaller grants, you have a few hundred pounds to help that you can apply for if you're under 18. So we've now got a model to manage bursaries. Which we want to work on it, we want to roll out.
PAUL BOWERS: Because I think the point that Chris Jeffs made, and he's from a similar background to a lot of these young people, is a small amount of money can make a life changing impact on someone's life. And also it's not just about the money, it's about having a friendly voice on the phone giving me advice. Should I go to this conference or that conference?
PAUL BOWERS: Should I buy this equipment or that equipment? I've been offered two MSc places. What are the pros and cons of these different courses. Because I want to be an ecological consultant. Or I want to be you know the person I want to be an academic. So I think the bursaries are for me, just really motivating, really exciting. When I get up in the morning. I think yeah we're moving this ahead so there's a lot of work and it's really diverse.
PAUL BOWERS: So it is a job, without a doubt.
SAM BURRELL: It sounds like you've been inventing loads of stuff it's really-- I'm just very aware of the time. Because again we're trying to keep in people's day. And I just want to ask you a final question. Which is -- I mean you've told us a bunch of stuff that you've been doing, which is all really, really interesting. -- and what I want to know is what are you thinking about next? What's next in your head?
SAM BURRELL: Where could you go next? Where are you thinking of? What ideas are you exploring at the moment?
PAUL BOWERS: Getting to high net worth individuals who want to make a difference. In terms of ecological research, and supporting the next generation of ecologists.
SAM BURRELL: Yeah that's great.
PAUL BOWERS: We've been around since 1913, I'm not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere and we are a safe home for your investment. I think that would be my message. It's to get to those people who want to make a big impact. And also want to see value for money. And it's not a return on investment, it is in a way.
SAM BURRELL: It is.
PAUL BOWERS: It is a return on investment, it is. But it's not a financial return on investment, it's a social impact return on investment. So if there's any investment bankers out there ... Really, really. I will get on my bike. I've started a discussion, which I obviously can't talk about. But that's what I'd like to do, and I'd like to introduce them to the British Ecological Society.
PAUL BOWERS: Because it's a great place, and they're lovely people. I've been there for five years and I do love my work. I hope that comes through in there.
SAM BURRELL: That's great. Thank you so much, Paul, I'm sure we'll have loads of questions for you afterwards. So I hope you're able to join us in the question session.
PAUL BOWERS: I will absolutely be there, and happy not only to answer questions. But if somebody wants to contact me directly, I'm always fine about that. Never knowingly undersold.
SAM BURRELL: Brilliant thank you so much, Paul.
PAUL BOWERS: Thank you, Sam. It's been great, thanks bye-bye.
SAM BURRELL: Bye.