A year ago, the annual report from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations for 2014/15 struck an upbeat note. For the second year running, the continuing decline in income had been relatively small, membership had risen slightly and the 2015 election had raised its media profile higher than ever before. "Acevo is on the up," the chair's introduction to the report said. "The sky is the limit." It added that the chief executive, Sir Stephen Bubb, was "planning to stay for a number of years".
The latest annual report, published in November, was a distinct contrast. Although media appearances had once again struck a new high in 2015/16, membership was slipping again and, crucially, finances were struggling: income was down by 27 per cent to £1.29m - the biggest fall since the loss of a major government grant brought a drop of nearly £1m in 2011/12. Bubb had decided, after 15 years, to step down after all, and the chair's introduction to the report spoke of evolution and finding a new identity for Acevo.
The report was published just a few days after the widely welcomed announcement that Vicky Browning, who as director of CharityComms for six years has increased its membership from 30 to 500 and quadrupled its income, had been appointed as the new chief executive, ending nearly six months of uncertainty since Bubb's departure. And a few days later, Acevo's main annual conference (right) took place, giving nearly 200 sector leaders who attended plenty to talk about.
These weighty developments had been preceded by exasperated remarks from Sir Martyn Lewis, outgoing chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who had said a merger between the NCVO and Acevo was "sensible and necessary", but negotiations had been like "juggling with sand". He had suggested that the NCVO might even start its own section for chief executives.
So where does all this leave Acevo, and what will top Browning's in-tray when she steps at the end of January into the shoes of a man who might not have been universally popular, but who succeeded in lifting Acevo from obscurity, growing the membership, influencing both Labour and coalition governments and gaining the confidence of many sector leaders? What will be her formula for forging the new identity its chair thinks is emerging?
Browning is unwilling to talk in detail yet, but says she plans to engage with the members, team and trustees to assess Acevo's position and where it needs to go. "Knowing me, though, you can be sure that supporting the members will be my key priority," she says. "It's all about the network." At the conference, she added that the network "gives the mandate to our strong, independent voice".
This chimes with Acevo's website, which defines its purposes as "support, development and an inspiring, collective campaigning voice for our members". Among members, sector leaders and commentators canvassed by Third Sector, debate tends to centre on which of these purposes - voice or support - should dominate. Two out of five Acevo members consulted at the recent conference thought it should just merge with the NCVO. "People can't afford multiple umbrella organisations these days," said one.
There is no easy consensus. Towards one end of the spectrum of opinion is Craig Dearden-Phillips, who was an Acevo member for 15 years and now runs the social enterprise consultancy Stepping Out. He thinks a vital function for Acevo is to exercise influence in Whitehall and Westminster, as it did in Bubb's heyday some years ago.
"I feel Acevo's lost its way and has gone from being influential to more marginal," he says. "Its dependency on Stephen became more marked and its fortunes ebbed and flowed with him and the receptiveness in Whitehall to his messages. The question for the incoming chief executive is this: can Acevo be relevant again, make the debate and get back on the map? I was a member for the influence it wielded rather than for member services. Bubb at his best had the right message at the right time. Vicky is a comms professional and she will find and take over that role, because the NCVO hasn't got much better at it over the years. She needs to be ready to take the opportunity when the government wants to talk to the sector again."
Towards the other end of the spectrum is Martin Edwards, chief executive of Julia's House children's hospice in Dorset, who thinks the sector doesn't need two voices and Acevo should leave lobbying and influencing to the NCVO. It should concentrate on training, development and support for its members, he says, with more events in the regions.
"Stephen's mercurial and brilliant personality commanded the attention of Westminster quite well, but his views were so often polemical that I wondered if they were based on consultation with members," says Edwards. "And is that sort of thing its core purpose?
"If I were to join, it would be for courses, peer support and services like CEOs in Crisis, which is already popular."
One sector observer, who asked not to be named, thinks the future direction of Acevo will be determined mainly by its finances (see "Acevo Numbers"). Most sources of income are slipping, and the turnover of its trading arm, Acevo Solutions, fell by more than half in 2015/16 after a "refocus" of its business model, about which Acevo declines to go into detail. After posting a deficit for three years running, its reserves, at £277,000, are close to the £240,000 minimum it has set itself, and it has pledged to at least break even in 2016/17.
"It's running out of money," says the observer. "It hasn't been able to make much on trading and is burning through its reserves. Another year like last year and it's over. It has got to act swiftly to reduce its cost base and I can't see anything to save on except staff.
"I think it could run on an income of between £600,000 and £700,000, mainly from membership fees, and I would favour concentration on membership services rather than influence. It could maybe spend the next two or three years focusing on sustainability and service development, and in due course that would give it a platform for other things."
Joe Saxton, head of the sector research consultancy nfpSynergy, was behind the establishment of CharityComms in 2007 and knows Browning well. "She is a bloody good manager of the basics, and what Acevo needs now is a manager, not a broadcaster," he says.
"Stephen was good with the big picture and the profile. Now it needs to be more nimble, with simple, clear policy positions. Ask people now what it wants and the only response you're likely to get is 'more public services run by charities'. We haven't heard much from Acevo about the Understanding Charities Group, for example, or Sorp or fundraising regulation.
"I would expect Vicky to spend most of 2017 getting to break-even point, taking care of staff morale and delivering to members. There's some inefficiency there, such as the basics of membership renewal. We will miss some of the political coverage at first, though I suspect Vicky will grow into that side of things brilliantly. The priority is survival, not soaring rhetoric."
Peter Cardy, former chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support and other health charities, thinks Acevo should act more like a trade union. "That side of things is less visible than policy and commentary," he says. "Too much charisma at the top can kill off the roots.
"Acevo needs to understand what's changed recently in the perspective of chief executives, who are much more likely to be pilloried. When the knives were out for the sector, Acevo - and the NCVO - raised little defence."
Among those welcoming Browning's appointment is Lesley-Anne Alexander, the former chief executive of the sight-loss charity the RNIB, who was chair of Acevo for six years until January 2015.
"I think Vicky will be a great appointment," she says. "It's good to see a talented woman getting a much- deserved break. She is known to be well informed and not frightened of having an opinion.
"In terms of Acevo's priorities, I think it has to be all about supporting charity chief executives through increasingly challenging times. This will be done best by listening to members, reflecting the mood of the sector, not being afraid to speak truth to power and, above all, cherishing and championing the brilliant work that we do."
But Alexander also warns that funding umbrella bodies is increasingly difficult: "Digital and internet communication and easy access to information mean that the traditional offer of printed materials and conferences will have to change. Charity chief executives on the whole are a modest bunch and sometimes, wrongly, see membership of a network as a luxury and prioritise other expenditure.
"For what it's worth, I think the days of traditional, transactional membership organisations are numbered - and I'm not specifically referring to Acevo. Increasingly, self-selecting communities of interest, providing better access to peer support and information exchange, will emerge and change the landscape for all of the umbrella bodies."