This month we speak to Nicolaus Stadeler, IMRF Trustee and Chief Financial Officer at IMRF member organisation DGzRS (Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger, the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service) about his career and the challenges faced by his organisation…

The Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (DGzRS) or German Maritime Search and Rescue Service is one of the most modern sea rescue services in the world. DGzRS was founded in 1865.

Today it is registered as a charity and non-governmental organisation (NGO). 

It  has over 1,700 staff and volunteers and 60 rescue vessels based in 55 stations providing 24/7 rescue services in all weathers, in the German parts of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

DGzRS also manages the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) at Bremen, monitoring German territorial waters, the German exclusive economic zones and providing SAR services across the region.

The MRCC Bremen works in collaboration with neighbouring countries and their MRCC’s, offering support for German ships and German seafarers at any time, anywhere in the world.

Can you tell us a bit about your career to date?

My entire professional career has been spent in finance and talking about finance. 

I have a degree in national economics and started work straight after university with one of the big international auditing companies.

I spent several years working for large international companies managing their finances and investor relations, where the main focus of my role was generating and then communicating added value to shareholders.

And then one day, I got a call from an entrepreneur who had sold his businesses and founded a charity to do some good and give something back – and that’s how I started to work in the NGO field.

Now I can look back over an NGO-career of almost 20 years, working for a good purpose and not just for the sake of shareholders is still immensely gratifying to me. NGOs are hugely important to the world, because they provide a meaningful value, and I can be part it. That´s very inspiring.

So why SAR?

Every NGO has its own good cause and there is a strong valid reason for why each one exists.

However, if you look at SAR-services, it comes down to a very fundamental question: how far do you risk your life, to rescue someone who is in desperate need, particularly when they are surrounded by deadly salt water.

Personally I´m definitely not one of the strong and brave rescue guys, but with my professional expertise, I am able to support our crews by providing sufficient financial resources and by keeping our technical equipment and training programs on a stable footing allowing them to operate at a highly efficient level.  

By doing my part, I can minimise the risk our rescue crews have to face, each time they head out of the harbour.

What does your current role involve? 

My role with DGzRS has the normal side which every CFO (chief financial officer) covers, which is managing the financial activities of the organisation.

Regardless of whether you are working for an NGO or a commercial company, that side of things is very similar.

You have to take care of all running costs, like salaries, rent for stations, bunker costs for the ships, etc. while keeping an eye on the long-term investments.  

It’s all about managing cash flow.

But alongside that, I am responsible for all DGzRS’s fundraising and marketing activities.

Together with our highly professional team we work to attract new donors and deepen the relationship with our existing donors.

Everyone, whatever she or he contributes to DGzRS by donating money, spending time as a volunteer or working for us full time is a valued part of the DGzRS SAR Family - they are a member of our #TeamSeenotretter.

I’ve been with DGzRS for eleven years now and the organisation has changed quite significantly operationally in that time.

In common with every organisation we constantly question what we do to ensure we are using our resources in the best way in an ever-changing environment.

For example, DGzRS was founded in 1865, but today our ships look very different to the ships we used in the early days.

The same applies to communication. Over the last ten years we have noticed an increased interest in financial transparency.

Twenty years ago probably no one would asked about a balance sheet. That has changed.

Today, when donors give money to our organisation, they want to know what we do with that money.

That means not only sending pictures of beautiful ships and a smiling rescue crew, but since 2012 we have included a complete financial report on our website. It´s all about trust.

And today, younger people care a lot about environmental hazards, climate-change and the balance of gender and diversity. Quite simply, we have to have honest answers to any questions posed on these subjects if we want to exist in the future.

How has fundraising changed over the last ten years - what do you think will be the challenges looking forward?

DGzRS finances its work exclusively through donations and voluntary contributions. We are proud and happy to have a broad base of long term donors, who give us the independence to carry out our tasks autonomously and independently.

Thanks to the trust that our donors have in our work and that corresponding friendship, we are able to continue without governmental financial support.

Fundraising has changed over the last ten years.

Fundraising has to fit the environment or the society you are working in. This environment is constantly changing and the way you reach people, existing donors or new donors, might work perfectly well today, but not in the future.  

Looking at Germany over the last 10 years, we have seen the number of people willing to donate money dropping.

But the total amount of money being donated stays relatively constant or has even slightly increased. That means less people are donating on average more money per person.

There are roughly 400,000 NGOs trying to collect donations in Germany.

The smaller the number of people willing to donate money, the bigger the pressure to give will be on each of them.

Bearing that in mind, we have to optimise our means of communication. Don´t write letters every fortnight. Don´t pile on the pressure “someone will be drowning, if you don´t donate now..”.

Instead become a friend with your donor. If you give something, which means allocating time and attention, you will get something in return.

You cover all marketing and public relations - what difference has social media made to your communications over the last ten years?

Social media works fine to get attention and to broaden our donor base.

But, there are two sides of a coin with social media - it really helps us to get in touch with people who are interested in DGzRS.

The feedback we receive through social media is really important to help us improve our communication strategy.

We are able to measure instantly how relevant our posted message has been to our community, so you know what fits best.

However, the other side of the coin is that you do need a lot of time and people to manage and monitor social media -  it´s a definitely a full time job.

Do you try and communicate in different ways/using different channels for older/younger audiences?

If you start to communicate with someone, you should have an idea of his or her expectations.

If you know that, then you are able to choose the appropriate channel to reach them effectively. An email might work better than a handwritten letter, or vice versa.

Sometimes a picture of a rescue unit and a short text via messenger works fine.

If you know your donor, it’s like knowing your friend, you know how to address them best. The key is getting to know them…

And it is quite funny, that the question of which channel to use is not actually a question of age anymore.

In Covid-pandemic times, many grandparents have learnt to communicate with their grandchildren via facetime, WhatsApp or Facebook messenger.

Suddenly, they are much more familiar with modern communication channels. Although, quite frankly, the written letter is still the best way to reach older people and older people are more likely to donate money or to think about a legacy.

What has been your biggest success in terms of communications or events?

Changing the perspective. Sending out your fundraising message to the world is important, but if there is no-one who wants to hear it, does it work? Probably not.

If you want to reach people, you should know about their ethical values.

You should know what interests they have. You should know what “picture” they have in mind, when they hear about DGzRS.

Try to match their expectations with your message.

Have a look at your organisation from the outside.

But, don’t forget to stick to the core values of your organisation. Otherwise you run the risk of becoming uninteresting and exchangeable.

What impact has the pandemic had on DGzRS?

Financially, it’s had almost no impact. You can see in our Financial Report 2020, published on our website, that the year 2020 was one with the highest income generation ever.

Again, it´s about friendship with donors. In rough times, it´s always good to know that you have friends.

Our operations have been directly affected by the pandemic. In order to protect our rescue crews and employees, we sealed off all our rescue units and our MRCC from any external visitors.

Our headquarters staff have all worked from home and we have had no face-to-face fundraising activities. There should have been naming ceremonies for more than five new rescue units – these were postponed until late summer/autumn 2021.

That has been really sad, but as a maritime rescue service our primary duty is to prevent people from drowning in the Northern and Baltic Sea. Collecting donations is secondary, despite being an important tool to do that.

You are an IMRF trustee - why do you think the IMRF is important?

From my point of view the IMRF has two really important tasks.

Firstly, the IMRF is the ‘Voice of SAR’ at the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

From DGzRS’s point of view - by being a member of the IMRF our organisation has a direct link to the IMO, the global standard-setting authority for safety, security and the environmental performance of international shipping.

That is a great benefit to DGzRS.

Secondly, the central idea behind the establishment of the IMRF is the sharing of knowledge.

By doing so, SAR organisations are able to reduce their individual efforts in research and development, pool resources and share any learnings and best practice which can help raise their SAR standards to a higher level.

What would you say to someone starting out, wanting to build a career in maritime search and rescue today?

Just take the first step and get started.