As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Here Ben Morton-Wright, Global Philanthropic Founder and Group CEO, interviews Geoff Holt MBE, DL, Yachtsman and Disability Sports Ambassador.

In this interview, Geoff talks about the challenges facing charities in the disability sector, the importance of brand and how The Wetwheels Foundation has structured its model as well as its strategic long term thinking and development plan.

Ben Morton Wright 0:00
I’m absolutely delighted to introduce Geoff Holt for the next Global 20 interview. For those that know, Geoff is quite a remarkable individual and has done so much in the charitable sector. The issue, we’re going to do a bit of a deep dive on today, and this interview is about disability charities and how they may differ. I don’t think it’s an issue we’ve had a lot of research done on so I’m really intrigued to hear more from Geoff’s experience. A number of issues to cover, Geoff, but first of all, I think maybe it would be great for those that are dialling in maybe the first time and don’t know your story, to hear a little bit about your story. And also what led you to found Wetwheels, one of the many charitable organisations that you’ve been involved in and founded and set up. So Geoff, tell us a bit more about your story.

Geoff Holt 0:46
Thank you, Ben. Thank you for that kind introduction. So yeah, my story well, I guess it starts like little stories, at the beginning. Effectively, I grew up and spent my childhood and my formative years sailing. So sailing is very much the thread that runs through my story. I unfortunately had an accident when I was 18/19 years old, which broke my neck and put me in a wheelchair. And at the time, I thought that was the end of my sailing career. But over the last 30/40 years since that moment, I’ve rebuilt my life, very much around sailing, continuing to be the thread, getting out on the water for personal pleasure, but also supporting other people with disabilities to get afloat. I also had a professional career parallel to this, with Deloitte, in marketing and business development, and I was able to combine those skills. Some 10/15 years ago, I put all of that together, and I was very successful in completing a couple of sailing adventures. I was the first disabled person to sail around Great Britain on my own. And a couple of years later, I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, in a yacht unassisted. So that was to give me a platform, which was to enable me to try and do more to give disabled people a voice and try and enable more people to enjoy the freedom of being out on the water. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10/15 years.

Ben Morton Wright 2:32
And that’s with Wetwheels as well. So tell us a bit more about Wetwheels and how you set it up. What does it do as a charity and how you set up that?

Geoff Holt 2:39
So Wetwheels is fundamentally a way of getting disabled people out in the water, who couldn’t otherwise get out on to, you know, a maritime environment. Now, there’s lots of sailing charities that do that. But there are a number of disabled people who either cannot or do not want to sail. And when you look at the options there, there were none or very, very few limited options. So I founded Wetwheels to make that possible. Effectively we have a fleet and it is fast becoming an armada of Wetwheels boats! We have just announced Wetwheels number eight. We are a series of power boats, that go offshore, take disabled people of all ages or disabilities, out onto the water with their friends and family. So it’s a shared experience. And perhaps most importantly, everyone gets to drive the boat. So for a moment in time they can forget about their disability and drive a quarter of a million pound powerboat at 30 knots, under supervision, I should say.

Ben Morton Wright 3:46
It’s an absolutely phenomenal charity, Geoff, and congratulations on everything you’ve done and the team. I think you’ve also been on the board of RNLI and Sailability and various different other charities that are organisations you’ve been involved in. So really on the issue of philanthropy and charity, and we talked about this, my observation has been (and maybe this is not totally grounded in evidence), but it certainly is my instinct that, you know, charities that deal with disabled issues are often at the back of the queue. They’re often sort of things that people get because they emotionally connect and they say, right, well, I’ll do that, it’s quite transactional. It’s what we would traditionally call maybe more of a charitable act than a philanthropic act, and more immediate. But what’s your experience been in the space in terms of trying to raise money and that’s a first issue I’d be very interested to address in terms of this balance between, say philanthropy, which is long term sustainable, versus charity, in the disabled, charitable sector? I just be interested to know what your experience has been.

Geoff Holt 4:50
So it’s a really interesting question Ben, because when you break down philanthropy and charity they often break down into sectors. So whether that’s health, whether that’s environment, whether that’s, you know, an intervention to the penal system to stop people reoffending. And then you have kind of disability, which is often tagged on to the end. And with disability comes health. So that kind of splits 50/50. So you have half of the people supporting disability who tend to be looking for cures or for remedies to a particular disability, and then you have the activity-led support.

Geoff Holt 5:38
So my experience, because I’ve sat on the board of the RNLI, I’ve sat on the board with the Royal Yachting Association, I’ve sat on other boards, I founded RYA Sailability, I was the inaugural chairman of that and other charities, charity is often seen as the, you know, if you open the the annual report of a company, under CSR, at the last page, there’ll be something about disability and how an organisation is supporting disability. It’s always on the back pages of the newspapers, disability. It’s always the bit that’s tagged on. So assuming that disability, and I would say, is as every much as credible as any other organisation looking for funding, we have to kind of differentiate ourselves. And there is this big suggestion that well, it’s through experience, that charitable giving is very short term. It really is, it’s kind of, “Oh, can we apply for some funding to help us deliver activity X?”, and that may be one, two, or if you’re lucky, three years. Philanthropy is about the long game and that’s perhaps easier to demonstrate to philanthropists if you are a health intervention, or you are looking for a cure for spinal cord injury, you know, that’s clearly not gonna happen in three years. It will take many, many years. So that whole philanthropic support for charitable objectives tends to be harder to to accomplish.

Ben Morton Wright 7:18
I think this is a very interesting subject, Geoff, and I remember your first talk, explaining around the Wetwheels journey and your own personal journey that led you to found Wetwheels. I actually think it was at our first Talking Philanthropy which was was in 2016, all those years back! You subsequently, we were very pleased, were the recipient of the philanthropy award in later years and spoke as well, at later events. And it’s always been an emotional journey, hearing about the work that you’ve done and your own personal story. But maybe you could tell us a little bit more about the uniqueness of Wetwheels because I think if you’re talking about philanthropy, and long term sustainability, Wetwheels is a brilliant example of how this organisation is really structured in a way that donations and gifts to Wetwheels can really take a long view. So I just wondered, maybe you could give us an insight into your thinking behind Wetwheels and how you think it differs in terms of a disabled charity.

Geoff Holt 8:20
So having set up and founded charities before, I’m very conscious that, certainly in the UK, there is a charity mindset in the way that charities operate. They rely heavily on volunteers. And with volunteers comes the challenge of everyone has, or feels they have, a right to have their opinion heard. The charity model in sailing and disabled boating has always been very much, you know, a Tuesday morning and a Saturday afternoon and that’s it. Well, I wanted something different with Wetwheels. So although we have a national charity, which oversees the charity, the Wetwheels Foundation, every one of my operating bases is a social enterprise. We are Community Interest Companies set up limited by guarantee. And what that means is that we run as Not For Profit businesses and that mindset that I had from back in Deloitte, of you know, customer focus, the importance of brand, the importance of delivering. The delivery had to be the same whether you’re going on a Wetwheels in Portsmouth or a Wetwheels in Yorkshire, the experience had to be the same for our guests. And that could only come about with a corporate mindset. And what that’s enabled us to do is to change the way we approach funding. So yes, we still have the charitable bid writing that happens, you know, ‘Please Sir, I have some money to help us take disabled people out on a trip?’. But I’m able to particularly tap into my philanthropic network, my experience, my commercial experience.

And we have a strategic development board now who actively seek out long term strategic relationships. Not just with individuals, but with organisations who share our vision and goals. And they’re very much about integration, inclusivity, professionalism, and ultimately changing people’s lives by giving them a trip out on a boat. Now that you might say, well, how does that work? Well, what you’re doing is you’re reinforcing their confidence, you’re reducing their anxiety, you’re giving someone who otherwise would never have the opportunity to have an experience of being out on the water, that opportunity to do so with their friends and family. And in a very small way, it’s part of their patchwork of life experiences. And it’s a high value experience. And we know it makes a difference. So that’s come about through this strategic long term thinking and development plan.

Ben Morton Wright 11:06
And I was very interested to talk to your Chair quite recently, and he was talking potentially about the idea of building an endowment, which would be phenomenal. And I would imagine, if you had a multimillion pound endowment, you could really secure the future and the funding in a very different way. So I’m interested to hear more about that. But it seems to me that, you know, your model is quite remarkable, Geoff. And maybe that’s why it’s been so successful, that sustainable model, where the philanthropist, (I think the philanthropist, am I right?), buys the boat, donates to the boat, builds the boat. And that’s a critical part in terms of the infrastructure, you don’t have any debt. Is that right? No loans or….

Geoff Holt 11:45
Yes. The organisation has getting on for nearly £2 million worth of boats. And we have no debt, no borrowing, nothing whatsoever. And that is a bit strange. Raising the capital for the cost of a boat is almost the easy bit – it’s never easy, raising a quarter million quid but you know, people tend to like to support capital projects. The challenge is always the operational revenue ongoing costs. And it’s that, if we can build a fund, an endowment pot, that we can then use to fund the annual activity for what we do, then that’s just going to take all that pressure off. I can spend more time giving people fantastic experiences, than sitting at my desk writing bids at six o’clock in the morning. But ultimately, it’s about, you know, the whole charity sector, which needs to rethink itself. I think it needs to look at the charity model what the Charity Commission have some input. We were set up as charities, but there are also Charitable Incorporated Organisations, CIOs. There’s the CIC model, which is the model, the route I’ve taken. I think charities are going to have to start looking at the way they operate. Because, you know, there is a pot of money that’s shared between organisations and we need to rethink how we approach and promote what we do and convince philanthropists to join us for the end game, not just for a couple of trips out next month.

Ben Morton Wright 13:25
Geoff, that’s fascinating. In terms of the other issue that I wanted to talk to you about, which is about leadership and board leadership on charitable organisations. The wider issue of how boards make sure there’s representation, I think this is something that I’d be very interested to hear from you. I think I’ve read that something like 15 to 20% of the entire population will have some issue that they’re dealing with in terms of disabled issue. So it’s a significant proportion of the population. And yet, how often is that represented on boards? I just think this is a really interesting subject and maybe the topic of a future Talking Philanthropy to actually look at this whole area of sustainability, but also board membership. And I just wondered if you had any thoughts on this subject and insight into this subject about how charities can make sure there’s representation and what’s your experience been?

Geoff Holt 14:20
Yeah well, interestingly, it not just charities Ben. Ultimately, I think that there’s a big drive isn’t there, with equality, diversity and inclusion to make sure boards look different. When you see a photo of the board, everyone who kind of looks different in some way. Ultimately, it’s about, I think, diversity of experience and thought. However, to contradict that argument, if you are a particular gender or if you are from a particular culture, or you happen to have a disability, you’re lived life experience of that is unique. Someone else who doesn’t sit in a wheelchair all day, like me, does not have that live life experience. So I think having diverse boards is essential. Because otherwise you’re having people without those lived life experiences, whether it’s disability, whether it’s through culture, whether it’s through gender, making decisions that affect us.

And I think it’s healthy that we should have more diverse boards, but, you know, I’m with you, Ben, I sit on a couple of boards but you know I see an awful lot of other boards that are not represented, particularly around leisure, for example, and entertainment, where people with disabilities aren’t represented, which when you’re trying to get 20% of the market, is 20% of the market. And, you know we’re not just 20%, we bring our friends and family with us when we go to the cinema or you know, we go to an event at a theatre. So, you know, it’s using the economic argument, rather than the legal status and protection we have with the Equalities Act. And I think it’s far better to convince people that way.

Ben Morton Wright 16:17
Geoff, it’s been an absolute pleasure. We’re out of our 20 minutes now so I have to draw this to a close, but lots of food for thought. And certainly we should recircle back on this. I know we’ve done themes around Talking Philanthropy, which are all on YouTube, around leadership, about mission, women in philanthropy, we found there was very little research on that when we looked at that subject at length. Again, that’s all there. It seems to me that this is something that we should really look at in future because we need to know more. And I commend you for the incredible work you’ve done with Wetwheels, because I think it’s a phenomenal charity.

For those out there that are hearing for the first time, please do look it up. Because it is an incredible charity because of your sustainability model, which is about how to propel the charity forward in terms of how you use philanthropy to get it going, but then propel it on its own model, which I think is a fantastic model. And it also does incredible work, which affects the lives of quite literally 1000s of family and wheelchair users and many others in the sector. So congratulations on everything you’ve done. Geoff. Thank you very much for this interview and look forward to hearing more on this subject.

Geoff Holt 17:26
Thank you, Ben. Thanks for having me.