Image Credit: Lloyd’s Register, Herry Lawford

May 5, 2015; The Guardian

People might be surprised to discover that Britain’s largest charity is not one of the best known, like Amnesty International, Oxfam, Red Cross or the World Wide Fund for Nature. Instead, it is the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, which, reports the Guardian, became the first UK registered charity with a turnover of more than £1 billion. Its first annual accounts since registration, say the Guardian, show that of total expenditure of £1.029 billion ($1.59 billion) in 2013–14, £1.010 billion ($1.56 billion) went on “trading to raise funds” and only £18 million ($28 million) on “charitable activities.” These activities were grants toward academic and research programs.

Of course, set against a headline figure of £1 billion turnover or the description “Britain’s biggest charity,” £18 million worth of grants seems not very charitable. The problem, though, lies partly in assuming that the public benefit of a charity can only be measured in monetary terms and partly in a failure to look more closely at the organization’s accounts.

Lloyd’s Register, if known to the wider public at all, will be best known as the organization that keeps tabs on the world’s shipping. Lloyd’s Register was founded in 1760 in Lloyd’s coffeehouse. It may have been something in the coffee, but in reality it was its clientele of merchants and seamen, that meant that Lloyd’s coffee house was not only the birthplace of Lloyd’s Register but also of Lloyd’s List, one of the world’s oldest surviving journals, and the Lloyd’s insurance organization.

Lloyd’s Register today is much more than a register of the world shipping. Nowadays, it describes itself as “a global engineering, technical and business services organization.” Its mission is “to protect life and property through securing high technical standards of design, manufacture, construction, maintenance, operation and performance.” In other words, it offers technical and engineering consultancy to ensure safety and regulatory compliance to shipping and other transport and heavy engineering industries.

For more than three centuries, it has operated as a mutual aid society. Until recently