Interview: Karl Wilding

After ten years as head of research at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Wilding is taking a higher profile in its public affairs and policy deliberations. He talks to David Ainsworth

Karl Wilding
Karl Wilding

Karl Wilding used to be the man you approached to find out more about the diversity of the sector's income or the proportion of women working in charities. As head of research at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the guiding force behind its annual Civil Society Almanac, he was primarily a numbers man.

But this year he's been cutting a higher profile, speaking more frequently about policy and politics on behalf of the sector's main umbrella group and playing a prominent part in the sector's Give it Back, George campaign, which achieved a resounding victory with a government climb-down on the tax relief cap at the end of last month.

He declares himself "over the bloody moon" at the decision by George Osborne, the Chancellor, to scrap the proposed cap on the amount of tax relief that major philanthropists can claim. "It was achieved by a cast of thousands," he says. "The sector was as one on this.

"Wherever the government turned, it got the same message. We had scores of charities lobbying their local MPs, writing letters, providing case studies. It wasn't only the voluntary sector, either, but also arts organisations, universities and philanthropists themselves."

Strategic review

The change in Wilding's profile follows a strategic review of the NCVO last year, which resulted in his promotion to a new job that includes policy and foresight as well as research. Since then, he has increasingly been put forward to speak on its behalf, something he says he enjoys. "I've always done a lot of work speaking at conferences and other events," he says. "This new role involves more public and media work, but it's going well so far."

Another factor in his move from the back room to the front line has been his assiduous use of Twitter - it's his favoured means of communication and he fires off up to 20 tweets a day to his 2,500 followers. "We used Twitter really successfully around the Budget, for example," he says. "It's a wonderful way to engage and influence people who are interested in what we do."

The tax cap has taken up much of his time recently, but he is also taking part in a root-and-branch review of the policy priorities of the NCVO, which has about 8,300 members. He says there is currently a "thin evidence base" about whether charities are better at delivering services, and one of his priorities is strengthening that evidence base.

"Given the right circumstances, I think NCVO members could show that they can deliver services better than statutory and private providers," Wilding says. "But it's necessary to create an environment in which voluntary sector organisations can fulfil that potential."

He also wants to publish more evidence for the sector to use, including a Giving Almanac to sit alongside the other almanacs published by the NCVO each year.

Sector dashboard

He says he wants to offer quarterly forecasts about key indicators for the sector, which the NCVO does not currently do. "I hope that in 18 months we'll be able to generate a sector dashboard looking at workforce, giving, expenditure, public attitudes and maybe public funding," he says.

Wilding, who has worked at the NCVO for 14 years, says another of his concerns is how it can minimise harmful legislation and red tape. "A lot of issues have caused problems," he says. "The tax cap, the concerns about the small donations scheme, the fit and proper persons test, the tainted donations rules.

"These all show that issues about the regulation of the sector won't go away. There are a number of different bodies making these rules and I'm not sure they talk to each other. A lot of the problems for the sector seem to happen by accident."

Another priority for him is social investment, which the NCVO sees as having the potential to grow into an important funding stream. "One of the most disappointing things about the Budget was that it took the focus away from how you could use the tax system to incentivise social investment," he says. "I feel we were making progress in this area. But the Treasury has said it will review it. It does deserve some credit there."

Wilding also wants to focus on better communication between the NCVO and the sector. "We've turned the dial from broadcast to engage," he says. "We want two-way communication, and we want to make sure we're understood. I like to ask 'would my mum understand that?' before I put something out."

CV:

2011: Head of policy, research and foresight, NCVO
2001: Head of research, NCVO
1999: Research officer, NCVO
1998: Research assistant, NCVO

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