Danielle Albracht, Supporter Involvement Lead, National Trust has been in touch with news about the new National Trust Chair. This is what she has sent us:
Before Christmas Hilary McGrady shared the news that the National Trust’s Council had appointed René Olivieri as our new Chair. In her email at the time, Hilary noted that René was passionate about using his time in role to preserve and promote culture heritage while tackling climate change and nature loss. This week he officially joined the Trust, and I have been asked to share his message to staff and volunteers with our Supporter Groups as well.
Today I am joining you officially as the Senior Volunteer, also known as the Chair, of the National Trust.
Over the last month I’ve had meetings with all the trustees, nearly all Council members, a few volunteers, and quite few members of staff. As this is my first official day, however, I thought I’d write formally to introduce myself. Now, whenever I’m asked to say something about myself I’m reminded of that scene in the spoof film from the seventies, Airplane, in which the lead character literally bores his fellow passengers to death with his life story. I will do my best not to try your patience.
My five siblings and I were raised on a farm in the foothills of Mount Hood in the US state of Oregon. I can’t say I love farm work, but I adored the wild and domestic animals and appreciated the beauty and diversity that can be found in that border region, where forest gives way to desert. At the age of 17, I had my view of the world changed forever by spending a year living with a Catholic family in Flanders. With the wonderfully preserved city of Bruges on my doorstep, I became fascinated with medieval history and early ecclesiastical architecture.
I had further chances to study abroad, in Germany and Italy, as a university student, and took every opportunity to explore their histories, heritages and hinterlands. After graduate school I entered academic publishing, crossing the Atlantic to join the firm of Blackwells in 1980 where I became the publisher for economics and philosophy. I published one of the first environmental textbooks, with Sir Partha Dasgupta, author of the recent Dasgupta Review on Biodiversity, and founded the journal of Bioethics with Peter Singer. As it happens, I also published a book with the National Trust, ‘A History of Country House Visiting’ by Adrian Tinniswood. Later, as chief executive of Blackwell Publishing, I became much more involved with the physical and biological sciences and learned to appreciate the power of experimentation, observation and evidence.
When one of the Blackwell family members died tragically, he left his entire fortune to a newly founded charity, Tubney, and when I left the firm a few years later, I became Tubney’s chair. We chose to become a ‘spend out’ charity and focused on nature conservation and animal welfare. I subsequently wrote a short book about what we’d learned (and the mistakes we made!) as trustees, but for me the key lesson was that funders would achieve more long term by supporting visionary and successful organisations rather than individual projects.
I then became Chair of the Wildlife Trusts for six years. The Wildlife Trusts are a federated charity and here I recognised how important it was for each trust to be embedded in its local community while at the same time sharing expertise and resources across the entire movement.
During the pandemic I served as chair at the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and I also served on the Arts Council’s Culture Recovery Board, where I could see how important it is to recognize that nature and heritage be joined up across the country. I was also able to see the National Trust at work from up close: The Future Parks Accelerator, which is part-funded by the Heritage Fund, was considered a landmark success by all involved.
My love of all things animal reasserted itself when I became chair of the RSPCA. Here I learned just how important it is for an organisation to get the right governance, financial controls and organisational structure in place before it tries to do anything else.
About 15 years ago now my wife and I lovingly restored our Grade 2 house in Worcestershire and began creating a new garden which is now open to the public for six months of the year. Income from visitors goes to our local theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I love the National Trust’s vision – for everyone, for ever – and admire our determination to get things done today while still planning far into the future. With my broad experience and education – in different countries, in different disciplines, in both the for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors, I hope I can use my knowledge and networks to make a great organisation even more ambitious and effective.
I subscribe to the effective altruism movement inspired by Peter Singer which argues that we have a duty not just to do good but to do the most good we can do. And what I have found most wonderful about my initial conversations with my new colleagues is their modesty and lack of complacency, the ardent desire to do more and do it better.
And I am in no doubt that what we do is of the utmost importance. In connecting to the past and looking to the future we are safeguarding much of what gives meaning and context to all our lives and will enrich the lives of those who come after us. The way I see it I am not so much the senior volunteer as the senior cheerleader for a winning team whose greatest challenges lie just ahead.
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