Interview with Simon Lee of ZSL: "We do the best job we can to build trust"

The in-house team at the Zoological Society of London were highly commended at the 2020 Excellence Awards for the incredible support they’ve given to their colleagues over recent years - we speak to Simon Lee, head of legal, governance, and risk management, about how his team engages with the business and the legal challenges of charity governance.

You’re a relatively new team. How did you go about embedding yourselves in the business and building trust / value? Were there any blockers?

ZSL is approaching its 200th anniversary – it has a rich and diverse history with the likes of Darwin and Prince Albert as early trustees. Like any organisation with such deep roots, it was important to take time to understand the background before implementing changes.

I built on the work of my predecessor and the skills already sitting in our small team. We are friendly and approachable, which helped people pass work to us, and we do the best job we can to build trust.

We don’t want to be seen as people who slow everything down, so our speed of response and developing templates and standard forms was also important. Understanding context helps, so taking time to ask a bit about what a project does is always worthwhile. We have also set up a handy page on the intranet. I like to see colleagues face to face where that adds value and I look forward to being able to do that again: to be honest, being based at London Zoo, it’s never a chore to walk past some animals on the way to a meeting!

Is there an initiative you are especially proud of/had a significant impact? How important were your legal skills?

The first year in the post ending up mainly being about the legal part of the role. Year two focused on governance: over my years in private practice, I had given charity and social enterprise clients plenty of advice about their legal structure and governance arrangements, but co-ordinating ZSL’s governance review and writing up the resulting detailed report was a big undertaking.

Whilst ZSL has plenty of history, we are also a modern charity undertaking leading science and conservation work around the world and we need to ensure we adhere to the highest standards of governance. We benchmarked against the Charity Governance Code and our work included surveys, attending committee meetings, reading terms of reference etc to try to establish what worked well/needed updating.

The work continues, as some things like introducing the ability to directly select some trustees (to complement those elected from our Fellows) need updates to our byelaws which, as a Royal Charter body, takes longer than for most organisations. It would be nice to think that in a small way we are putting our stamp on the history of ZSL.  

How do you balance your initiatives/projects with the BAU work?

It can be tricky, as people continue to need the day-to-day advice and we often have tight deadlines. The regular flow of trustee and other meetings helps, as it gives target dates which enable time to be carved out in the diary to write a report or tackle other discrete tasks in the overall plan. With a small team, something unexpected can easily derail the planning and sometimes it’s just about working until it all gets done.

Your team has taken on governance and data protection responsibilities since its formation. How is the team set up to handle such requests?

The team is now up to three – me, the governance and risk officer and the legal officer – and I am fortunate to have colleagues with wide and varied skillsets covering these areas. We have colleagues who can help us with subject access requests, as even simple ones take a while to process. In the early days of taking on data protection, we sourced some external legal advice but have learned a lot ourselves since, so we tend to handle most matters in-house these days. Of course, there’s always some areas where we will need some specialist external input, so we will get it when we need it.

You’ve secured a big reduction in legal costs over the last two years – how have you done this?

Our vision is “A world where wildlife thrives”, so every pound saved out of our budget helps the charity do more for wildlife. In private practice, I had great exposure to a wide range of legal work, especially our ‘bread and butter’ – grant agreements, commercial contracts, data protection, charity law and regulation etc. As a team, we have a good skillset and the suite of review forms we developed means consistency of approach when reviewing documents. Outsourcing is for areas that I know relatively little about, e.g. banking or property law. We benefit from some pro bono support from a couple of firms (gratefully received) and I have a good relationship with our main external solicitors. I ask targeted questions wherever possible, as I’m aware that being too open-ended is likely to cost more.

How have you supported the business through the coronavirus crisis?

ZSL runs London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, as well as the Institute of Zoology and conservation projects around the world. Income from our zoos underpins our global work, so being closed to the public for several months has hit us hard. Our zoos are home to 20,000 animals and we’re still committed to providing them with world-class care. We’ve made the most of furlough schemes where we can, but our zookeepers, vets and sites teams are essential workers and some fixed costs remain.

We’ve lost millions of pounds of income, putting us under immense strain, but we’ve seen a heart-warming response from the public and our supporters. Sir David Attenborough launched our fundraising appeal to keep the zoos open and we’re grateful to all those who have donated.

Our team has looked to continually support our colleagues – for example, we helped free up crucial cash when it was needed by removing the permanent endowment on a legacy. Despite the difficult days, I am immensely proud to work at ZSL – as well as continuing our vital work, we let local NHS hospital staff use our car park for free in the first lockdown and there’s a great NHS tribute on our giraffe house that can be seen from outside of the zoo.

There are three ways that everyone can help. First, donate. Just £5 helps feeds our lions or penguins for a day. Second, join us – why not become a Member or a Fellow? Fellowship is an excellent way of getting involved in ZSL’s governance and supporting us, especially for any readers who want the detail of the byelaw amendments! Lastly, pay us a visit. We don’t yet know when we’ll be reopening (hopefully in April following recent government announcements), but we’d love to welcome as many in-house lawyers as possible to our zoos when we do – find out more on the ZSL website.

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