Sir Stuart Etherington's 2017 state of the sector address to NCVO Annual Conference delegates

Good morning and welcome, everybody. It’s good to see so many of you here today in what we believe is the biggest conference of voluntary organisations that we have ever held.

This conference is very much a place where people come to discuss what is best about charities and voluntary organisations, governance and leadership, and what the future of social change looks like. You represent those who are driving change and looking at how next year we can be even better, and make a bigger difference.

Britain should be proud of its fine charities and voluntary organisations, clubs and societies. But we are just the manifestation of something much broader and much deeper.

Those who do good by giving time, money and talents in the service of others are the very soul of this country. And it remains the case that charities are the way people choose to come together and make a bigger difference.

The evidence is all around us.

The Disasters Emergency Committee has spurred many thousands into action to address the crisis in East Africa, raising millions in days. Comic Relief has had another fantastic year, raising money that will support charities and address issues at home and abroad. And one of the greatest challenges of our time, mental health, is firmly on the agenda of policy makers and politicians because of charities such as Mind and campaigns such as Time to Change. Who else could invoke royal support, government support, media support and of course the support of the public, other than the voluntary sector?

Change

So, there is much to celebrate.

The British public are strong supporters of charities. But I think that they have also given us a clear message in recent years: doing good is, by itself, not enough. How charities achieve their goals matters. I know this is something we have given much thought to recently and it has not always been an easy journey.

But my message today is one of optimism, underpinned by a sense that we have risen to the challenge. Charity is changing. And that is thanks to bold leadership.

That we are listening to the public’s concerns is, I believe, increasingly evident in the case of how we as charities fundraise. This has been one of the single most difficult issues the sector has had to face up to in decades. Some charities were rightly castigated for poor and, in some cases, unethical practices.

I want to celebrate the leadership of those charities who are grasping the nettle and changing the way that they fundraise, setting high standards for themselves, focusing on the long term and, if necessary, taking sensible risks in the short term in order to get there. I know this is not easy. But I also know that if you’re in this room you’re not interested in doing just what’s easy, but also what’s right.

Because of the leadership many of you have shown, we have a good story to tell about how we are acting on the public’s concerns, and, despite the short-term upheaval, I believe we will be in a stronger place for the future.

Governance

Charities are also, I believe, listening to valid concerns about weak governance. High-profile failures remain rare, but I expect everyone in this room recognises there is room for improvement. We should be just as concerned about the weaknesses in governance that don’t make the headlines: a lack of diversity, a reluctance to ask questions, and the perennial difficulties of recruiting new trustees, particularly in small organisations.

But change is afoot. My sense from talking to many of you is that boards are taking their responsibilities ever more seriously. There is a recognition that good governance is mission-critical for all organisations, and that improving it is an ongoing task. I’m confident that NCVO is well governed, for example, but that doesn’t mean we cannot make improvements. And so this year we are reflecting on our governance, using the sector’s own quality standard, PQASSO.

Strengthening governance is a long-term task. But again, I think we have a strong story to tell. Later this year will see a revised Code of Good Governance for the Voluntary Sector, produced by our sector and for our sector and recently endorsed by the House of Lords Committee on charities. It has higher standards, not least of which is a call for greater board diversity.

The Charity Commission is sufficiently confident in the new code that it feels able to withdraw its own guidance on the hallmarks of a good charity. This is a perfect example of how we can lead the agenda if we simply choose to do it, to make things happen.

The next step, I believe, is a debate on what the future of charity governance should look like. Because I want us in this room today to define the future of charity governance, before others start to do it for us.

Agency

So, we should be proud of what we do and our central role in British society. We are at our best when we are on the front foot, proactively responding to a changing external environment and dealing with emerging issues in our own sector.

If anything, my fear is that too often we think that we can’t change anything, that we are too weak, too divided, too small. Or that we worry that we are too constrained by regulation or those who do not agree with our values or approaches.

There will be periods when achieving the change we want to see is difficult. Or when it will take time beyond the horizon of any one government or elected representative.

But this is why we exist, and with the monumental changes taking place in British society now it is more important than ever that we are bold in our approach, innovative in our thinking and determined in our mind-set.

This is particularly important at the time of a general election. Now is the time for us to stand our ground, to stand together. To be the voice for those that otherwise would not be heard.

We should campaign with confidence. And if you have any doubts, or fears, NCVO is ready to support and advise you.

Now is not the time to tell ourselves that we are under threat, or that we cannot be a voice for those who have been ignored, or that we are being ignored.

One of the biggest challenges we need to address is this tendency to tell ourselves that we cannot change the world around us. We can. We are. We do.

I didn’t join this sector to cower or to plead and I doubt you did either.

Vision

We need bold leadership now more than ever, whether from the largest charity or the smallest community group, as the next government grapples with the daunting task of leaving the European Union.

Brexit is the issue that dominates the landscape of British politics as far as the eye can see. It casts a long shadow over policy-making everywhere, consuming all that comes before it.

But the drivers behind the domestic policy agenda have not disappeared. The challenges of protecting our environment, of housing, of social care, of poverty, have not been solved by the decision to leave the European Union, nor will they be.

And we are still, I believe, dealing with the aftermath of a divisive and ugly referendum campaign that exploited fears and social tensions, amplifying and igniting them.

Responding to these changes will require some different thinking, vision, and leadership.

It’s the sort of bold thinking typified by the National Trust, the RSPB, Wildlife Trust and the WWF, who have set out their vision for the countryside following our withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy.

It will require us to work with those we might not agree with, what Julia Unwin refers to as ‘friends in unusual places’. And it will require courage and bravery.

I want to be clear. Our agenda as a sector cannot and must not focus on what those externally might view as a self-interested, narrow agenda around funding as we embark upon massive, never-before-seen change.

We need bold thinking to distinguish ourselves from the melee of interests who are lobbying government for replacements for funding they currently receive from the European Union. This is a critical issue for our sector – European structural and investment funds, Horizon 2020 and other EU funds are worth at least £350m a year, supporting work from skills development for those excluded from the labour market to cutting-edge clinical research. But simply asking any government for a British version of these funds will not work.

We instead need to set out our vision of what a post-Brexit Britain can and should look like. We should inform and scrutinise the agenda in the coming years. We must do no less than act as the ‘eyes, ears and conscience’ of society, as the recent House of Lords Committee on charities said we should be. We need to set out our vision about how the strategic intervention of government, in partnership with charities and voluntary organisations, can make a difference to the communities and issues that came to prominence.

Solutions

But we must also, with a general election in the offering, double down on offering solutions. Politicians have almost exclusively been preoccupied by Brexit, with little capacity to address other issues. It is not just the tight timetable that means party manifestos may be thin.

Policy makers and civil servants have been similarly challenged. In some cases, the basics of day-to-day running of government have been jettisoned. A few weeks ago we learned that the government, all-consumed by Brexit, has agreed simply to extend hundreds of public service contracts that were due to lapse. There is no time to think about whether the contracts, or the contractors, are providing the most effective possible service. It’s has been all hands on deck to deal with the oncoming storm of Brexit-related work.

And now for politicians, an election sprint in addition to the marathon of Brexit. I am surprised they have the energy to seek out our views, even if they have the interest.

So we have to stop waiting to be asked and put forward our knowledge and expertise, our solutions, and of course our users and beneficiaries.

And I genuinely believe that politicians of all parties are listening to voluntary organisations.

We have undoubtedly had some difficult years of late in our relationship with different governments, but it is my sense that this had improved of late.

I am pleased that we saw the government agree to a sensible resolution of the anti-advocacy clauses issue, for example. Of course, we will continue to be vigilant on such an important issue. And if we see attempts from any department to make use of the clause to undermine any organisation’s freedom to speak up, we will be robust in our defence.

I hope that the next government will be willing to re-commit to the Compact, as a clear sign of intent of partnership working with our sector.

We have seen improvements to the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme and the promise of further funds from dormant bank accounts. My message here again is for us to be bold: dormant assets represent an opportunity to capitalise our sector and secure its future. If the next government really wants to support local charities and put power and decision making closer to communities, then use the funds from dormant assets to endow the fantastic and growing network of community foundations in this country. I would like to see these funds become the investments that could sustain local charities for decades to come.

On public services, this government has been looking at commissioning and procurement, with a view to increasing the involvement of the voluntary sector, particularly those organisations which have often been excluded to date.

This is worth briefly reflecting further upon, particularly if the next government is to build upon current progress and push on.

Public services

When even large private sector outsourcing companies are handing back contracts or desperately trying to sell the institutions that they are running, then there is clearly something dramatically wrong with many current approaches to commissioning and public service markets.

Yet this is a large and complex area, with countless interconnected systems and stakeholders. Change in such circumstances is a gradual process and it involves taking people along with us.

A government review of charities’ involvement in public services is something NCVO and many others have long asked for and it is most heartening now to see attention has been focused on the issue. We have made our case, loudly and effectively, and the door has been opened. I trust that it will stay so whatever the outcome of the election.

It falls to us now to present pragmatic solutions. Reforming public service commissioning is a project for the long term. Those hoping for a radical re-invention overnight will be disappointed but those who persevere will be helping to improve public services for everyone.

Being bold here means being ambitious for our sector while recognising that the greatest gains will accrue through consistently demonstrating our role as a constructive partner. We have shown that we can deliver better public services, more responsive, caring and efficient. Better outcomes for the people who need our help. Being bold means having the fortitude to keep going even when the going is slow. There is broad consensus now on this issue – and we need to act together to turn the tanker. To highlight the successes of best practice and to encourage and inspire their emulation.

And as one of my colleagues is wont to say, ‘it’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t mind who takes the credit’.

So. Be bold with your ideas. Be bold with your energy. Be bold even with your patience and determination. All are needed at this time.

Volunteering

I said at the start of this year that we need to be bold about the opportunities for volunteering and social action, particularly if we are to meet the needs of an ageing population.

We are a nation generous with our time, with one in four adults volunteering every month. And we should celebrate the fact that young people are even more likely to volunteer. Yet it has proved difficult to substantially grow these numbers, a frustration when I am often told that some people are prepared to do more.

So again, let us be bold.

I would ask you: are you doing all that you can to involve volunteers in every aspect of your work, are you doing all you can to develop your volunteers, are you doing all you can to find new ways of volunteering.

We’ll hear this afternoon from Matt Hyde and Bear Grylls of the Scout Association. They are responding to the challenges of volunteer recruitment by finding ways to adapt their roles so they can be more flexible.

Such approaches will help sustain and grow volunteering for the future. And they will help ensure that we are offering opportunities to people from the widest range of backgrounds.

My challenge to you today is to reflect on your own organisations and ask where you could be doing more.

But it’s not just about our own organisations. I believe we all have a responsibility to think about how we can sustain and grow volunteering in the interests of our whole society. We know that involvement begets involvement, with those who volunteer becoming engaged in other areas, building stronger communities and a stronger society.

For our part at NCVO, I want to change the debate where we have heard negative things about volunteering, particularly around volunteering in and around public services.

We should stop addressing concerns about job substitution and poor quality volunteer management by apologising for the involvement of volunteers.

In public services, volunteering is not a cheap substitute for staff, nor is it a way of cutting costs. Volunteering is about making a bigger impact in our public services, about serving and reaching more people. So you will not be surprised to hear me say that we all have to rethink our approach to volunteer management, placing more emphasis and value on this role, so that the experience of those who volunteer means that they are more likely to stay with us.

Above all, volunteering is a qualitatively different, both for those benefiting from the work of volunteers and for the volunteers themselves. It is a good thing in itself.

Indeed, one of the key challenges for post-Brexit Britain will be whether or not we have a large enough skilled workforce able to deliver the services are population now needs. So it will be more important than ever that we encourage the development of social networks, of neighbourliness, and the community life that is instrumental in helping communities become more self-sustaining. Our biggest role going forward may be in reducing demand for public services by helping communities to become more resilient, not just delivering more.

And returning to my earlier theme of good governance, where people wish to perform a public duty by becoming a charity trustee, give them the right to ask for time off work, just as school governors or those performing jury service are able to.

The road ahead

There are going to be difficulties and opportunities in the months and years ahead, whatever the shape of the next government or the type of Brexit that is negotiated. We are, all of us, in uncharted territory. Nobody knows that the future will look like: extrapolating from the past is no longer a guide to future events.

I am though reminded of the words often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: the best way to predict the future is to create it. We need to create our own future, and to help create the whole country’s future.

In my view, that should mean a society where there is once again opportunity for all. And a society is a place where giving, volunteering and social action, in all their forms, are valued, encouraged and recognised. And it is a place where charities and voluntary organisations are engaged and involved. Politicians of all stripes should heed this message, particularly if they want to rebuild the trust that is so sorely missing from public life.

I know that whether you are managing a charity, chairing a board, running a club or society, managing paid staff or volunteers, all these things can be hard. It doesn’t matter if you are the biggest charity or smallest community group. If you are bold in your aspirations to make a difference to the causes you care about, I believe more than ever that NCVO and our partners, whether they be funders or membership bodies, businesses or public bodies, can stand behind you to help you achieve your impact.

NCVO will be there, to represent your interests, to stand up for you and what you do, to support you so that you can focus on the things that make a difference. And I want to reiterate that over the coming weeks in particular, that you should speak up on the issues that concern you. NCVO will be behind you.

And we will continue to remind people every day that they should be proud of charities and voluntary organisations. That we should be proud of the fact that so many people in this country still choose of their own free will to give time or money to the causes that they believe in. And we should be proud of the difference to people’s lives that that we make.

Being bold means thinking ahead, taking risks, looking at where we should be and taking the actions that we need to today in order to get there tomorrow.

Being bold means thinking long-term, recognising that sometimes change takes time and requires patient but ceaseless determination.

But above all, being bold means making things happen.

And I know we can do that.

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