A one-size-fits-all approach to governance in the voluntary sector would not work for the UK’s largest charities, according to Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
Speaking alongside Sir Stephen Bubb, the former chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, at Acevo’s summer lecture in London last night, Etherington said too many people were conflating how small, local charities are run with what the NCVO calls "super-major" organisations with incomes of more than £100m.
"Does one size fit all? I don’t think so," he said, talking about the largest charities. "It cannot be the case that one model of governance fits all. In fact it may not be the case that the notion of charity, meaning all of this stuff, is any longer relevant."
In response to a question from Anne Fox, chief executive of the criminal justice sector charity Clinks, about getting people from diverse backgrounds, such as those with a previous criminal conviction, onto boards, Etherington suggested that a "one-size-fits-all" approach to governance could be vulnerable to legal challenge.
The Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act introduced rules that will automatically disqualify people with criminal convictions for fraud, terrorism and sexual offences from being charity trustees from April 2017.
"If they are acting as a one-size-fits-all," said Etherington. "If you’ve been in prison, that’s your lot: you can never be a trustee. I think we have to challenge that. We have to challenge it morally but also be prepared to respond legally.
"Increasingly, if you get regulators that are intervening in this way, the recourse is legal."
Bubb, who was discussing his new role leading the Charity Futures project, said the charity sector had made "huge progress at the executive level" but this was "not matched by similar progress at board level".
The relationship between chief executives and chairs was also "particularly undeveloped and it is something I would like to work on", Bubb said, and the loss of the Charity Commission’s advisory role had left a vacuum in the sector.
He said the charity sector should question whether existing governance structures were fit for purpose and whether a new system was required for the largest charities, including whether remuneration for trustees should become the norm.
Bubb also criticised the charity sector’s lack of a voice in the recent European Union referendum, saying it was "shameful" that the sector was "a mere whisper in the recent referendum campaign, despite knowing of the damage a Brexit vote would bring".