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Sir Stuart Etherington's 2019 state of the sector address to NCVO Annual Conference delegates

Introduction – where we’ve come from

Good morning.

Thank you for joining us today.

I’d like to begin by asking you to cast your mind back a little over one hundred years, to the time of the first world war.

This space we’re sitting in was a working brewery. Imagine the noise and the sights and the smells of thousands of gallons of beer being brewed in here. It would have been a rough, noisy environment.

But it was nothing compared to the harshest of lives led by those sent to the trenches of Europe’s battlefields. We’re all familiar with the images. It’s hard for us now to contemplate the reality of living for weeks, months on end, wading through mud, watching your friends die around you and knowing you too would likely soon be killed.

These were the conditions experienced by Edward Birchall, a captain in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. At 32, he was one of the older men to fight. Edward had volunteered to leave his civil service job and be sent to the front line.

Edward was also the first honorary secretary of the newly formed National Association of Guilds of Help.

At the time, the guilds of help were considered the new and progressive way of doing charitable work. The old, Victorian approach was represented by a body called the Charity Organisations Society.

Edward and some of his counterparts in the charity world of the time had had conversations about bringing these organisations together. They reasoned that the two groups agreed on more than they differed about, and that they would be stronger together.

Writing from the front line, Edward told his friend Percy Grundy, the secretary of the Manchester Guild of Help, that he’d left £1,000 in his will – ‘if I get scuppered’, as he’d put it – for the national association, ‘or any other purpose in your absolute discretion’.

It tells you something about Edward that despite the unendingly bleak conditions that surrounded him, his thoughts were still on the future, of how he could play a part in improving society.

Less than a year later, he died of wounds received in action during the Battle of the Somme.

In 1919, Percy Grundy and a small group of other men and women used Edward’s legacy to create the new unifying body that they had together envisaged prior to the war. He named it the National Council of Social Service, and that name stuck for 61 years until 1980 when it became NCVO.

I would like to talk about the future

In NCVO’s centenary year, and with the centenary of the great war so recent, I think it’s right that we pay tribute to our founder, his dedication and vision. He is the reason we are here today, over a century after his death. And I believe he would be pleased to know of the immense difference his legacy has made in that time.

This is my last annual conference as chief executive of NCVO. I joined the organisation 25 years ago, and since then I have seen the sector change, change and change again. And it would be tempting to use this speech to talk about the past.

But I am only interested in the past to the extent it can help guide our future. And it’s our future I really want to talk about today.

We need a vision

Because frankly, too much public debate in this country of late has revolved around nostalgia. And misplaced nostalgia at that.

The thinking that life was better in the last century.

The idea that we lack control of our destiny.

The idea that someone else is to blame for all our problems.

It often seems that in the last few years, we have spent so much time focusing on what we don’t want, that we haven’t thought about what we do want.

Now is the time for that. We need a vision for our future.

And what is our sector’s role in that?

We will be the ones defending the interests of others

In my letter to the sector at the start of this year, I wrote that we are no longer the country we once were, but that we are not yet the country we will become.

We had been scheduled to leave the European Union two days ago. The actual date of departure remains unclear.

I know these feel uneasy times, that the ground is moving beneath our feet.

But we cannot let that distract or dissuade us from making progress towards a better future.

Whatever happens with Brexit, whatever happens politically, whatever happens economically, we must, must focus on what we want the country to be.

And we must show what our sector can do as part of that.

Because believe me, in the vacuum to come, there will be plenty of people trying to shape things in their own interests:

Watch out for the calls for tax cuts for those who can most afford tax.

Watch out for the calls to deregulate labour from those with the most secure jobs.

Watch out for the calls to loosen environmental standards from those with no attachment to the places they live.

We will, we must, be the ones sticking up for the interests of others, of those who aren’t listened to.

What next for the country

We can’t count on anyone else to do this.

We need to be the ones making the case for the right priorities for our country, whether in the EU, out of the EU, or somewhere in between.

And these are the themes I would like to hear us talk more about.

I would like us all to say, together, that investing in social growth must go hand-in-hand with investing in economic growth. That productivity is pointless without community. And that focusing on wellbeing isn’t only good for our health but for our economy.

Focus on community

The economic storm clouds are gathering around our economy nationally and globally. That is concerning in itself.

But we should not desire economic growth just so that we can have more of the same. That, in any case, is a Sispyhean task. We will never be satisfied with more. We will always want more than more.

We must aim for something qualitatively different.

A re-focusing of our society around those things which truly make life worthwhile.

Investing in people and communities, in connections and connectivity. And prioritising our planet.

Investing in wellbeing means not longer hours at desks, but more flexibility. Fewer hours at desks, more time to engage in community life and to volunteer.

And such things themselves drive growth. A focus on community life and wellbeing is not inimical to economic success, it is essential to it.

It is crucial that we make this case or it risks being lost. As an Economist editorial put it last year: ‘The greatest tragedy of Brexit is that it is consuming the solutions to the problems that caused the vote to leave in the first place.’

Invest in society

Look at the youth club that gives young people a place to go, lets them learn about themselves in a space with just enough boundaries. Lets them learn about responsibility, about the effects their actions have on others. Integrates them into the community around them. Lets them learn to resolve disputes in a responsible manner.

Such resources for our young people have been particularly hard hit over the last decade.

There is a cost to running such a service – but there’s a much greater cost to society of not running it. A cost now and a cost in the future.

We have lost ground to make up which we must make up.

But this isn’t just about doing it for the sake of business, because it’s better for our economy to boost skills or prevent crime. We do it for its own sake, because it’s the right thing to do, for fulfilling lives for our young people and the adults they will become.

We all have to focus on this if we want a better, stronger, more cohesive country in the future.

Locality recently reported that a staggering 4,000 community buildings and spaces are sold off by cash-strapped councils every year. Libraries, playgrounds, day centres. What legacy is this for the future? It contrasts miserably with the era and spirit in which so many of them were created. We urgently need to replace these. And when we do they should be truly in the hands of communities, not controlled by public bodies free to dispose of them at whim.

The government can often better serve the public by being more hands off.

I’m not interested in asking for the return of a proliferation of disconnected, micro-managed grants, with the sector as the clients of government. I would like to see a real devolution of power and assets. Genuine belief in communities.

Politicians need to think more widely about public services – about a whole ecosystem of services which benefit the public – rather than the narrow conception of that which is commissioned or provided by the state.

For all the talk of devolving power from various governments over recent years, we are nowhere near the radical decentralisation, the real transfer of control that we need. Delegating power isn’t the same as truly giving it away to others.

Empowered voluntary organisations can create places and services that will make the difference we need to see in this country now and in the future.

Indeed the word ‘services’ doesn’t do justice to the vibrant ways that charities of all kinds connect and inspire and support people.

It’s this belief that leads us to back the calls for a Community Wealth Fund to be created from dormant assets. This would capitalise communities, allowing them to purchase the assets that would make them sustainable and independent for generations to come.

But it requires bravery from politicians, a willingness to truly give power and ownership back to people.

What next for our sector

What, then, does the future hold for our sector? How can we get ourselves into shape to help deliver a better future?

We know that a driver of distrust in politics and in institutions is dissatisfaction with the world immediately around you, with the health of your local community and spaces. This, combined with larger forces, has been damaging for trust and integration in our country. It’s been said there is a tension between greater global economic integration and national sovereignty which leads to dissatisfaction with democracy as decisions appear to be made elsewhere. It is a challenging circle to square.

The 21st century experience can be disorienting and alienating. 

Consumer goods are far cheaper than they’ve ever been before. But people feel disconnected from global companies which rarely seem to have their interests at heart and which they feel don’t listen to them. Technology has empowered us. We can do our banking, for example, as it suits us. Using a phone app at midnight if we wish.

No one would want to return to the days of waiting in a bank branch queue, but it can feel harder than ever to talk to a human who’s empowered to make a decision or resolve a problem. Have we lost something in those relationships, those connections with other people, even if it is just chatting in a queue? And how do we make sure that’s replaced?

Our own work a few years ago piloting a project to help unemployed people to volunteer found that it was as much the connections they made as the skills they learned that made the difference in securing them jobs.

When we feel powerless or disconnected, we risk losing faith. We need to think about the sector’s role in restoring that faith, for people in each other and in society. It’s a question we all need to be considering as we move forward. Voluntary action is designed to achieve the opposite of alienation and disempowerment. It is designed to achieve connectivity and empowerment. The urgent challenge for us is to ensure we are properly fulfilling this essential element of our mission.

There has been a recent flurry of thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections on the sector’s future, such as Julia Unwin’s Civil Society Futures review and David Robinson’s You and Me Principle which touch on this. Later this year we will endeavour to synthesise these and draw out common themes on which we can all work together.

What I will do now is make some other general observations about the sector and I would encourage you to consider what they mean for your organisation and cause.

Move on from focus on attacks

My first observation is that we must move on from a focus on ‘attacks’ on the sector, which has taken up much time in recent years.

Of late, we have defended campaigning, we have managed successful interventions on pay and on fundraising. Work on safeguarding is well underway, with the announcement last week of the new sector-led partnership to help improve skills in this area.

We’ve shown that the sector can respond in a mature way and control the agenda.

And now NCVO is going further and offering a new assurance service, NCVO Trusted Charity, a way of practically ensuring and showing others that your charity operates to high standards.

But. Time to move on. Set our own agenda. All I would say as words of wisdom for future problems is that the answers are never black and white. I would urge you to avoid ideological approaches in whatever challenges lie ahead, to treat critics with good faith, and always to come up with the solutions yourselves rather than leave it to someone else.

A new economic phase

My second observation is that the sector is entering a new economic phase

In the last two decades, we saw substantial growth in the scale of the voluntary sector.

It was driven for some by public contracting, and driven for others by fundraising.

This growth era was characterised by a focus on scaling up, honing those functions which helped us grow.

It feels to me that this stage of the sector’s life is coming to a close. This is by no means to deprecate the work, much of it of my contemporaries across the sector, which brought the sector to a new level of power and influence.

But the things that made us successful in the past will not be the things that make us successful in the future.

More and more I’m hearing colleagues asking fundamental questions about why and how their organisations are operating.

About how we stay true to what we feel instinctively is right.

And others are asking increasingly sophisticated questions of us too.

Influence is not only about scale, but also about authenticity, and from where you derive your credibility.

It is the right time to be asking searching questions of your organisations.

This means we must reflect on what we have got right and what we have got wrong. Doing so demonstrates that we are learning. That we take seriously our obligations to get it right. And it helps others benefit from our experience.

I hope today you will have opportunities to share many stories of your successes, but please consider also sharing stories of lessons learned. They are most valuable to those around you.


My third observation is that the sector is at its best when it is pushing for change. Impatient to make things better. Disrupting itself and the world around it.

There are so many people out there with brilliant ideas about how to do things differently, do them better. Many of these ideas come from young people. We have to back them and back their ideas, as Ruth will demonstrate this afternoon.

We have to make a conscious effort to move on from old ideas and embrace new ones. Ready ourselves for tomorrow’s fights, not pick over yesterday’s.

Change can be uncomfortable. But change and renewal are part of life. Without change and renewal you will be overtaken by the world. That isn’t good enough for our sector. You must always seek to be in the driving seat, leading the way.

So be bold. Never be afraid to make the changes you know are right.


What will come next will be different. And it should be different.

Whoever follows me will have a different vision for NCVO. They will renew and reinvigorate the organisation. I believe I have left NCVO in a strong position for whatever its future looks like.

I’m pleased to have been able to draw on the strength of NCVO’s growing membership over this time. Both as a source of inspiration and a sign of the sector’s power.

And we have a talented and committed staff team and board who are dedicated to responding to what the sector needs and have developed the capabilities to deliver that support in ways fit for the future.

Setting out exactly what that future looks like for NCVO is for the next chief executive, but there are three key areas that I think will be priorities:

  • Enhancing and deepening our engagement with communities
  • Improving connections between members
  • And engaging with new emerging movements

I would like to end by saying this:

We are buffeted by political and economic forces – but this is no reason why we shouldn’t be active in shaping the country we want.

You are in charge of your own destiny.

As Abraham Lincoln famously put it: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’

If I have learned one thing in my time at NCVO – and I believe I have learned at least one thing – it is that the sector gets better all the time.

There are bumps in road but we are always making progress.

Together, we can, we do make a difference.

We have done for decades, and I know you’ll be doing so long into the future.

Thank you very much.



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