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Sir Stuart Etherington's 2018 state of the sector address to NCVO Annual Conference delegates

AC18SotSGood morning everyone, and welcome to NCVO’s Annual Conference.

It is great to be here, to talk with you, and to hear about the fantastic things that you are all doing. The world around us is truly changed by charities.

It is NCVO’s 100th birthday next year. It was round about this time, one hundred years ago, that discussions were taking place about how voluntary social work could be better organised.

Conferences like this one took place as people came together to discuss how new charities such as SSAFA, the armed forces charity, could work alongside the government of the day, in aid of those most in need.

NCVO was the fruit borne of these conversations.

As we have for nearly a hundred years, we are once again coming together to discuss how we can make a better society.

How we can work together to build it.

How we can make a bigger difference to the people of Britain. How we can address their concerns. And how we can help them to join in the activities that make them happier and healthier.

Charities and voluntary action bring people together. And they will continue to unite us in the future.

And it is this theme – how we bring people together in modern Britain – that I wish to talk to you about today.

We have always brought people together.

Charities and volunteering are enduring.

But then so are the big problems that we face.

Our upcoming centenary is not purely a cause for celebration. NCVO’s members are dealing with some of the most pressing problems facing our society. What you might call the new ‘five giants’.

  • A housing crisis.
  • The insidious impact of poverty and inequality.
  • Health and social care systems overwhelmed by demand.
  • Social isolation and the challenge of loneliness.
  • And the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

We all want to do something about these and countless other issues.

We all take small steps each day to make a difference – whether checking in on a elderly neighbour, or thinking carefully about the companies we buy from.

This only get us so far, though.

Today’s problems need concerted action. Tackling them needs resources, mobilisation, action.

And they require action from the neighbourhood to the United Nations.

This is why you in this room bring people together. To organise them. To unite them against the social and economic injustices of our time. To help them make a bigger difference than they could on their own.

So today I want to celebrate the work that we do to in bringing people together.  To celebrate the difference that we make.

And I want to celebrate the fact that we offer something different. Something distinctive. Something valuable.

So let me turn to my first theme, that of the challenges that we face and how we will overcome them.

For everyone in this room, it has been a troubling start to the year. The safeguarding allegations faced by international development charities, and then domestic organisations, have once again shone a light on our sector.

And its glare has not been comfortable.

The scrutiny has been difficult and intense. Our moral legitimacy and leadership as charities has been questioned.

Does the way that we conduct ourselves while at work fit with the values that we share with our supporters? Have we put reputation and branding above serving our beneficiaries? Are we more interested in winning contracts than reducing dependence on our services?

To add to the challenge of whether we are trustworthy, our basic competency in matters of safeguarding has also been brought into question.

These questions go to the very heart of our existence.

But we have not shied away from difficult questions in the past, and we will not do so now.

It is now three years since I spoke here about the fundraising crisis that shook the public’s faith in charity. I said at the time and I will say it again: this form of scrutiny is the new normal. And wherever those problems arise, scrutiny is a challenge, but it is a challenge we should welcome.

On fundraising we listened to the public’s concerns. And acted upon them.

This is important – putting our own house in order shows a level of maturity. I’m pleased to say there is a good story to tell here – new systems are working well and the new fundraising regulator is both responsive and sensible. Fundraisers, on who so many of us depend, should also be commended for adapting quickly to these changes. 

If we cast our eyes even further back to public disquiet around salaries in our largest charities – we acted quickly to review how we approach senior executive pay. Again, not an easy subject and one which the public has strong feelings about.

Some large charities have taken our advice on board – publishing details of their top earners but also, crucially, describing how their trustees arrived at that decision. Others should follow and I would encourage you all to do this.

Regardless of whether regulation compels us to, we should think clearly about what you pay and why, and place this in the public domain. To my mind, there are no good reasons not to do this.

Then we can move the debate on – as a country, as a sector, we should be just as concerned about low salaries for those who work in charities.

Our fantastic social care charities are struggling to pay the real living wage under the current contracting regime. Even the likes of Serco are losing millions of pounds. So we should also be asking questions about low pay and how we ensure that people are not exploited in the name of charity.

Transparency can drive positive change.

There are many positive indications about how gender pay gap reporting is prompting organisations to take action.

We are accustomed to asking difficult questions of others – but we need to make sure that we also ask questions of ourselves.

I don’t think there is a single organisation in this room that hasn’t reflected on their own work and how they can improve.

On safeguarding – the first thing I wish to say is that we can do something. These are difficult, but not impossible questions to address.

We must get the culture of safeguarding right. This is not just about protecting vulnerable people. It is about making our charities a safe place for everyone.

And it is for all of us to do that – whether we are large or small, domestic or international.

There is much to build upon.

The excellent work of organisations such as UK Youth, the NSPCC and the Scouts will help us to get it right. The NSPCC already help many small charities with safeguarding policies and practices. I believe such collaborations between large and small charities are an important basis for the future of our sector more generally.

NCVO, working alongside government, the Charity Commission and our members will also help to build safeguarding knowledge and capacity across the voluntary sector.

As part of this, we have asked Dame Mary Marsh, former chief executive of NSPCC, to lead the development of a code of conduct that we can all work to – ensuring that our values are reflected in our behaviours. We want this to work for every organisation whether you are in social care, arts and heritage, international development or conservation. We want to make it clear to everyone that we take these issues seriously and that we aim for the highest possible standards. The cost of failure is simply too high.

I want no charity to fail in this important challenge for want of advice and support and I am confident that we can work to address this without delay.

So NCVO will widen the practical advice and support that we offer. We have already made available to all charities for free.

So getting policies and procedure in place is important, getting culture and leadership right is even more important. Indeed, a failure to recognise our role as leaders might lead to a tick box approach that will drive out the people who give their time, that we are so dependent upon.

Culture comes from the top. For all the leaders in this room and beyond, we have to set the standards that we expect of others in relation to how we work and how we protect our staff, our volunteers and beneficiaries.

This is not because in the age of scrutiny we will be found out. Or because the public rightly have higher expectations of us than the public or private sectors.

It is because it is the right thing to do.

If we want to be here in another 100 years time we must demonstrate effective moral leadership.

We must recognise it, nurture it, promote it – particularly in the way that we teach the next generation of leaders.

And we must support the leaders and charities that are doing the right thing and embracing the new scrutiny. The charities that are transparent and accountable. Even if that means we hear more about the things that have gone wrong.

Supporting moral leadership in charities and voluntary organisations includes supporting those who challenge from within, whether they are paid staff, trustees or volunteers. It is more important than ever that we listen to all of those voices, even when these messages are difficult.

I have argued that people find common cause through the experience of getting involved. It is charities and voluntary organisations and community groups that enable them to turn their interest into action. We help people to make a difference to the cause that they care about.

And I have also argued that we need to challenge ourselves and sometimes change ourselves if we are to be central to solving the problems that society faces.

And, yes, despite the issues we face, we are the solution to society’s problems. And it is to our role as ‘problem solvers’ that I now want to turn.

We can do more to champion volunteering and charities. We can do more to help people understand how we work. And we can do more to make the case that a vibrant and engaged sector is the best way to strengthen modern Britain. 

I am especially keen that we clearly articulate the benefits of people getting involved as active citizens and volunteers. I think that we are pushing at an open door here: people want to get involved. We are increasingly aware that it benefits our wellbeing, both as individuals and collectively as a society.

An increasing number of us are coming to the same conclusions – that across society, not just in public services we are losing human interaction.

Technology has increased the scale and pace of what we can achieve, as individuals and organisations.  The self-service checkout. Telephone banking. They make life easier but we risk losing something important. 

As David Robinson so eloquently argues, we need to put people and human relationships back at the centre of so much of what we do. We need practices and habits that bring people together.

I believe that we can show this. Better than anybody.

We have a vision of what the good society looks like and we should not be afraid to speak up about it.

With your help, we can get the message out that the world is changed by charities and volunteering.

But I don’t want to stop at explaining why we are the solution. I want us to grow our impact. I want us to make a bigger difference to the challenges I have talked about.

I have heard it said too frequently that there are too many charities.


I have heard that there are not enough volunteers.


If anything we need more charities. And more social enterprises, more co-operatives and more mutuals.

We need a stronger civil society that is confident in speaking up, that is independent from government and business. And I am convinced that people want to get involved. I am convinced that people in this country want to do good things, that they want to make a difference. But I also hear that at times we make it difficult for them. That we get in the way. 

It is important that we do not view the past year through the prism of the last few weeks.

Yes we have challenges, but we continue to deliver. We continue to make a difference and we continue to be worthy of the public’s support and trust. The response to the Grenfell disaster and the attacks in London and Manchester showed how responsive communities can be, how people will always come together in times of need.

We need to show that we can help those people to make a bigger difference.

These are challenging times. These are changing times.

But that is also an opportunity to look ahead.

There are now a number of reviews in train that reflect on the role of charities and volunteering in our society.

It is appropriate that once these are concluded, NCVO will help to build a consensus on where we go from here.

And in our centenary year – we will, of course, reflect on the past, but more importantly, planning for the future.

As civil society we can unite around what we have in common, rather than focus on the differences that are characteristic of such a diverse sector.

We have much to celebrate about charities and volunteering. Our role in mobilising people, deploying their time and talents, in building a sense of community. We are the solution to so many of the problems we see around us.

And we could be so much more.

So join us in getting those around us involved in our communities, making a difference together.

Join us in reforming and improving our sector, making it fit and focused on the future.

And show the world that it is changed by people coming together through charities and volunteering.

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