Acevo's future: Optimistic despite the tough times

Acevo's income has been dwindling and its membership has fallen in recent years. In the autumn, it will also move into the same building as the NCVO - often seen as its rival. So will it remain a separate organisation? Andy Ricketts reports

Office move: Acevo is due to move into the same building as the NCVO
Office move: Acevo is due to move into the same building as the NCVO

There are few indications that the squeeze on the voluntary sector is easing off, and voluntary sector umbrella bodies, including Acevo, are far from immune to its effects.

The chief executives body has seen membership drop slightly - from 1,971 in 2010 to 1,877 in 2011 - and some of its income, including work from the former infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders, has dried up. It managed to increase slightly the amount of strategic partners funding it received from the Cabinet Office in 2011/12 - £280,000, up from £210,000 in the previous year - but the department is dropping that programme and funding will reduce to zero by the end of 2013/14. As a result of the cuts, Acevo has lost 10 staff over the past two years.

But Lesley-Anne Alexander, its chair, says the finances are holding up in spite of such challenges. In 2011, it generated an income of £3.16m and had reserves of £646,000. "We have entered the period quite strong financially - we have built up our reserves," she says. "The board and I are quite clear that we can use our reserves in order to stay strong. Acevo's business challenges are no different from any other organisation - you have to juggle income streams."

Events, conferences and training remain central to the organisation's work. According to Acevo's Impact Report 2011, it held more than 100 of these, attracting more than 2,400 delegates. But it has moved away from organising large national events to running mainly smaller ones, such as lunches with politicians or sector figures. It also generates money from providing consultancy services to local authorities.

Alexander concedes that the dip in membership numbers is a concern. Overall, however, she is pleased with its 72 per cent membership retention rate. It considered expanding its membership to cover senior managers as well as chief executives, she says, but has ruled that out. "We certainly thought about it a lot, but we've decided not to become fixated about needing a large number of members," she says.

Aside from financial worries, Acevo faces difficult decisions about how it positions itself, particularly on controversial government policies, during a challenging time for charities generally.

Joe Saxton, co-founder of the consultancy nfpSynergy, gives Acevo credit for maintaining a good relationship with government in difficult circumstances, but believes it should be more proactive on policy. "It has allowed itself to become reactive to the government agenda rather than setting its own agenda," he says. "I don't have a sense of what it wants other than that the government should be outsourcing more to charities."

In most people's eyes, he says, the organisation cannot be separated from Sir Stephen Bubb, its often outspoken chief executive, whose views sometimes divide opinion in the sector. "There is nobody in the sector who is better at media comment," says Saxton. "He is quick to form an opinion, and sometimes it is one that not all his members would agree with."

Alexander, though, believes it is right for Acevo to speak out on issues such as the Health Lottery, even if not all members agree with it. "The joy of a membership organisation is that we are never all going to agree on everything," she says. "It would be wrong for us not to represent an issue because some members didn't want it to be represented."

Then there is the question of possible mergers. Acevo is due to move into the same building as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in September, which will save it about £30,000 a year. But the plan has prompted speculation about whether the organisations will unite.

Alexander is open about the fact that Acevo's board has discussed merging with the NCVO, but says there are no firm plans afoot.

She points out that the two organisations have already begun hosting joint events and issuing joint responses on certain issues, and she is keen for them to work more closely together in the future.

"If I was a betting woman, I would say we will look back in 10 years' time and see that the structures of the two organisations will be very different - but I don't necessarily think it will be one organisation under one leader," Alexander says.

Saxton cautions against a merger. "As a rule, I think that sector bodies with differing views and differing perspectives are better off separate rather than together," he says.

- Read other articles about how Acevo has evolved over the last 25 years, including an interview with Sir Stephen Bubb

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