Together We Lead the Way: Action for Blind People Joins the Royal National Institute of Blind People

Classic cases Lesley-Anne Alexander CBE was hired as CEO of the UK’s RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) in 2004 with a mandate to change the organisation. The previous year, the then CEO, Ian Bruce, had announced a severe drop in legacy income, and an expected shortfall of over £6 million between expenditure and income in 2003/2004.

But by March 2009, RNIB had become the largest charity for blind people in the UK, with an income for 2008/2009 of £96 million. This case, by Scott Moeller and Kieran Hawkes, Cass Business School, UK, traces the charity’s success story achieved via partnerships with other charities and the introduction of a new group structure – a success driven by Lesley-Anne’s overarching vision and determination to chart new territory. Scott discusses writing the case and why he was keen to concentrate on a non-corporate organisation.

Making contact

Cass Business School had a series of leadership sessions for female CEOs of charities, which is how I met Lesley-Anne. We discussed how she transformed the RNIB through mergers; I mentioned my desire to write a case about the third sector, and she kindly agreed. I offered it as a final year MBA project and Kieran Hawkes was keen to take it on.

Different perspectives

When I first started writing cases, I didn't feel it was always necessary to have the leader of the organisation involved with the writing of the case. However, I found from my teaching that students benefited not only from the perspective of the organisation as a whole (including quotes and insights from key players in the firm as well as their advisors, if possible) but also from the leader who would usually be driving the organisation’s strategies. One of the interesting discussion topics in class is whether the organisation as a whole was aligned to the strategy articulated from the top.

Case writing challenges

It is always a challenge to get the right people to interview, both within the company and outside. Typically, even when the case writing project has the support of the CEO, key interviewees often don’t see it as priority: they have a business to run! Much can go wrong! Interviews have to be rescheduled, and can be abandoned because an emergency arises. We then have to check quotes and facts, which takes more of the interviewees’ time.

For this case, Lesley-Anne was scheduled to speak at Cass Business School about the case and so we had a specific deadline. It is therefore critical at the outset to have a very clear plan on the timing of interviews and the necessary follow-ups, which is often one of the most time-consuming activities. 

Atypical and often ignored

Having tested it already several times with MBA and MSc students, I have found that there is great interest in looking at a case which is atypical and in an industry too often ignored in MBA classes, despite being of critical importance to the lives of so many people.

The most interesting discussions about this case come from what’s different in the voluntary sector and how insights and knowledge gained from the RNIB case could be applied to corporate cases. The voluntary sector builds more on consensus, and this has applications to the corporate sector as well as providing an example of best practice.

Third sector relevance

The case provides an excellent opportunity for business school students to look at the voluntary sector as part of any course where they will often be looking exclusively at corporate examples of deal-making activity. It will take most students out of their comfort zone of familiarity, yet everyone has hopefully spent time volunteering for charities at some point in their lives. Also, as they progress through their careers, they may sit on charity boards as non-executive directors or directly volunteer their own time and money. It’s therefore useful for students to see that organisations in the third sector are as professionally run as those in the corporate sector.

This case works well in an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) course, both in terms of deal design as well as post-deal integration. It could also be used in a strategy course or one that looks at human resource issues. Naturally, if a school has a course on business in the third sector, this would be an ideal case.

Pioneering formats

I believe this is the first case to be available in three formats for the visually impaired: Braille, large type and in a special electronic version on a memory stick that is compatible with Talking Books systems.

Additionally, a video of Lesley-Anne’s talk at Cass Business School which accompanies the case is available, along with a teaching note.

Completing the set

At Cass Business School, one of the largest business schools in Europe, I teach the MBA and MSc electives in M&A; it’s the most popular elective in the school and entirely taught using case studies that I have written with the help of the relevant CEOs and chairmen, and which are available from The Case Centre. These include popular cases about well-known deals such as Malcolm Glazer's purchase of Manchester United (‘The Manchester United Buccaneers?’: Malcolm Glazer’s Acquisition of Manchester United), the Kraft-Cadbury battle (The Cadbury Defence), Sir Philip Green's attempted purchase of Marks & Spencer (The Battle for Marks & Spencer: Sir Philip Green’s Unsuccessful Takeover) and even how Timpson, the shoe repair and key-cutting company, built its business through acquisitions (‘A very Distressed Transaction’: Timpson’s Acquisition of Max Spielmann). But I was missing a non-corporate case. Government departments merge and so do charities. Many of my students go on to work in the third sector, but there were no M&A cases written about charitable organisations. Therefore, I was looking for an opportunity to write a case about third sector organisations that merged, and RNIB provided a perfect example.

An insider's view: Lesley-Anne Alexander CBE, CEO, RNIB

Although this case is about a specific merger we have been through a series of similar, if smaller, acquisitions during the past ten years and although we learnt a lot from each episode we never quite had the time to reflect and record our experiences. In hindsight, this was quite a significant shortcoming on our part and so when we were offered the opportunity to take part in the case we jumped at the chance to conduct some thoughtful analysis and consideration of this particular aspect of our work.

An increasingly professional sector

I hope that management students will benefit from studying the case and that more very bright people will be enticed to work in my increasingly professional sector. It is great to work in an environment where you can apply excellent strategic and business practice to make the world we all live in a better place! I also hope that academics might benefit from a broader understanding of our business.

I am sometimes surprised at the ignorance of the scale and complexity of third sector businesses and know that we have skills and achievements that deserve to be better understood. Finally, I hope that a better understanding of merger work by third sector leaders will lead to a more streamlined environment where economies of scale can be turned into real benefits for charity beneficiaries.

Further developments

Looking back, I wish we had integrated our business at RNIB and Action for Blind People more fully, but because mergers in the third sector are very consensus driven this was not possible at the time. Since the case was first drafted we have taken the opportunity to revisit the terms of the merger and have now achieved nearly a complete integration of all our activities which has led to a further £1m per annum being spent at the front line, helping even more blind and partially sighted people.

Go for it!

My advice to others who are thinking about being the subject of a case study is to go for it! It is not as onerous as I first thought it might be. The MBA student who researched and wrote up our case was very bright and self-motivated and therefore was able to glean the information he needed with the minimum of fuss. Professor Moeller was very supportive and reassuring throughout the process. The insights we gained far outweighed the time it took.

Case details

Together We Lead the Way: Action for Blind People Joins the Royal National Institute of Blind People
Scott Moeller and Kieran Hawkes
Cass Business School
Ref 314-223-1
Also available:
Teaching note
Ref 314-223-8
Video (Lesley-Anne Alexander at Cass Business School)
Ref 314-223-3

About the authors

Scott Moeller is Professor inn the Practice of Finance and Director of the M&A Research Centre, Cass Business School, City University London.

Kieran Hawkes is an engineer and case writer at Cass Business School.

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