St John’s – a ONCE proud organisation

Karl du Fresne follows up on his St John piece from a few days ago

I recently wrote a column in this space about the St John Ambulance organisation. It was prompted by a Consumer survey of emergency survival kits which rated the one marketed by St John as the worst of those tested. Ironically, it didn’t include a first aid kit.

I wondered how an organisation with St John’s proud history and reputation could have exposed itself to such public embarrassment, and I attempted to answer my own question by speculating that it had been corporatised – and in the process, become disconnected from its roots.

I pointed out that it wouldn’t be the only worthy organisation to have succumbed to the ruinous cult of managerialism, with all the attendant trappings of bloated hierarchical structures, marketing and PR flannel, expense accounts and flatulent corporate jargon.

The column prompted a mixed reaction – one predictable, the other unexpected. I’ll deal with the predictable one first.

Andrew Boyd, St John’s central region general manager, wrote a defensive letter to the paper pointing out, among other things, that a St John first aid kit was available as an extra to the $200 “Emergency Grab Kit”.

That reminds me of ordering one of the earlier IBM PCs from one of their official dealers back in the day.  It still cost $9,999 for one of those.  It turned up without a power cable.

“Oh, you didn’t order that.  That will be $10 + courier”.  

But there’s a much bigger issue here, which brings me to the unexpected reaction.

My column uncorked a bottle of disenchantment, cynicism and distrust among the frontline rank and file who represent, for most New Zealanders, the public face of St John. One insider said I had described the organisation “to a T”.

Both in online comments and emails to me directly, St John volunteers expressed dismay at the way the organisation has changed: at the proliferation of middle managers and the layers of sclerotic bureaucracy that get in the way of good people trying to do something they love for the good of the community. These are all hallmarks of corporatisation.

Even more striking was a very real fear that internal critics of the organisation would face repercussions if they were identified. “St John is very touchy about bad publicity,” said one.

That’s another defining characteristic of corporatisation: an obsession with public image and a desperate desire to prevent negative messages getting out. Journalists dealing with corporate communications flunkies see this every day.

I’ve seen the same with the Auckland SPCA.   They were looking after animals.  Then they decided to go for corporate money.   They were once approached by a community initiative in the early days of the Internet to take photos of animals and show them for adoption on the ISP’s web site.

Expecting to be welcomed, they were told that the SPCA logo on the site would cost them $10,000 a year.

Everyone involved stopped donating time and resources to the Auckland SPCA since.

Either the St John hierarchy doesn’t know about this underbelly of discontent, or chooses to ignore it. Either way, something’s wrong.

Is it unfair to single St John out for criticism? Perhaps. Several people named other not-for-profit organisations that have been transformed by corporatisation, and not in a good way. One commenter suggested the problem lies partly with the demands imposed by charities legislation.

Perhaps St John just had the misfortune to come to public attention because of a spectacularly incompetent marketing exercise. But clearly its bosses have some repair work to do.

In the end, dollars are what count.   So it can happen that the purpose of the charity is lost in the optimisation of the mighty dollar.


Karl du Fresne

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.