The Atkins diet

Liz Atkins, Director of public policy at the NCVO, wants more voluntary organisations to be their own advocates.

Liz Atkins
Liz Atkins

Liz Atkins would be the first to admit that her appointment as director of public policy at the NCVO, the umbrella organisation for charities, has come at a fortunate time. "We are at a hiatus," she says. "We've got the Compact, the Charities Act and an Office of The Third Sector, which have all been terrific."

But she is not in danger of being lulled into a false sense of security. "We have an opportunity to think about what we should do to form the agenda for the sector," she says. "It's important we create an environment that will allow it to flourish."

The NCVO is the nearest thing the sector has to a collective voice and has seen membership rise from 1,500 in 2000, a tiny fraction of the 164,000 charities in England and Wales, to 5,100 today. This is still a small proportion, prompting some to argue that the NCVO shouldn't claim to speak for the sector.

Atkins hopes its Campaigning Effectiveness Unit and schemes such as bursaries to attend political party conferences will help charities speak up for themselves more effectively.

"As well as working with our members to become a stronger voice for the sector, I'm also really keen to help organisations to be their own advocates in terms of influencing and campaigning," she says. "We want charities to really get an idea of how you influence politicians.

"Many don't know how to influence opinion formers. It's a shame that when they have such a good story to tell, they don't know how to get their message across. I don't think we are as good as we could be at selling our worth."

Another area where Atkins recognises there is real room for improvement is the implementation of the Compact. She admits to being shocked at the outcome of the recent case involving Kids in Communication and the Learning and Skills Council. "It's important that we have good relationships across the board so that the Compact becomes the norm," she says. "Charities often tell me it's still really difficult working with local government because they don't understand the risks and burdens they face in taking on contracts and delivering local services.

"We need a change of culture. We are still getting lots of Compact breaches, which is a real shame."

Atkins believes third sector minister Ed Miliband has already made progress in bringing about a culture shift within government. "When it came to the raid on the Big Lottery Fund to help finance the Olympics, he was good at making sure the voluntary sector was protected," she says.

She also insists that the NCVO's campaign on the issue was a success. But protection did not extend to lottery funders other than the BLF, and Atkins concedes: "Our members in arts, heritage and sport were hard done by. It's very disappointing that local sports organisations will be affected, and we fought hard to make sure it didn't happen.

"But we hope the Olympics will have a positive effect on their funding. It's an issue that is seen as relating mainly to London and the south-east, so it's important that organisations elsewhere also get support."

Atkins is confident that recognition of the sector has become so entrenched across the political parties that a change in Prime Minister, or even in government, would not have an adverse impact on its future.

"I don't think there would be a great shift if there was a change of government," she says. "All political parties have expressed their support for the sector. Gordon Brown has already signalled that the sector is very effective, and I hope he would do something quite early to bring the sector together."

Atkins CV

2007: Director of public policy, NCVO
2004: Director of strategy and communications, National Housing
1997: Head of policy and public affairs, NSPCC
1993: Head of government and European relations, the Post Office
1989: Deputy secretary, the Co-operative Union.

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