Interview: Sir Stephen Bubb

Acevo's chief executive has significantly raised its profile - and his own - since he took the job in 2000. John Plummer's interview with him leads a Third Sector assessment of 25 years of the sector's chief executives body

Sir Stephen Bubb
Sir Stephen Bubb

Few people in the voluntary sector divide opinion more than Sir Stephen Bubb, the chief executive of Acevo.

Some regard him as a colourful and charismatic leader; others think he should take a less self-congratulatory and more statesmanlike approach.

But it would be difficult to dispute that he has raised the profile of Acevo and become one of the towering voluntary sector figures of the early part of the 21st century.

"I have put Acevo on the map in a spectacular way," is his own typically immodest appraisal. "We are now a national force. I even turn down some interview requests – bizarre, I know."

Such comments – a feature of his highly readable blog – have made him an easy target. Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts has branded him a "richly comic figure" and a "third sector schmoozer who has wormed his way into Whitehall".

Bubb, 59, regards such comments as an indication of his growing presence in political circles. But he adds: "I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t have a fairly strong sense of humour. Sometimes it does get a little close to the bone."

Dominant figure

Bubb has become such a dominant figure at Acevo that it’s difficult to imagine it without him. When he joined the organisation back in 2000 it employed nine staff, a third of the figure of today, and was based in what he calls "bloody Harrow", a long way from the Westminster spotlight he craves.

Friends warned him the job was too staid for his liking. It even had country dancing at its annual conference, one said.

Bubb soon changed the mood music, but the financial position took longer to resolve. "When I started, I was led to assume Acevo was financially sound," he says. "Six months in, it became apparent that it wasn’t. We had a major funding crisis – probably the worst we’ve had. It was life-threatening."

Bubb cites moving to central London and his assiduous networking as key factors in Acevo’s rise.

A board member once told him to "knuckle down" and spend more time in the office. He ignored this. "That was duff advice because I thought networking would get us out of the problem," he says. "I used my contacts to help us reconfigure and get support. It was an early lesson in how chief executives should not spend too much time in the office."

Bubb says it took three years – two more than he expected – to "get things motoring". He says a key milestone was when he led a delegation of members to meet Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister, to discuss the sector’s role in service delivery "and to persuade him to appoint a third sector minister". So Ed Miliband’s appointment to this job in 2006 was down to Acevo? "Absolutely," says Bubb.

Changing attitudes

He also credits Acevo with a key role in the creation of the Future Jobs Fund and changing attitudes to full cost recovery, which he says has "sunk into the psyche of the sector". He helped to develop the embryonic social investment market by becoming chair of the Adventure Capital Fund in 2006. That’s a post he still holds, but his real epitaph will be his zeal for ensuring that charities provide more public services.

It’s an aim that has alienated trade unions and some charities that are concerned about loss of independence, mission creep and collaboration with private companies. Bubb dismisses such comments as "bollocks", saying charities have always delivered public services and generally do it better than the "crap" state.

During the years of the Labour government, Bubb, a former Labour Party councillor with homes in south London and Oxfordshire, was viewed in some quarters as a champagne socialist. An empty bottle of 1999 Pol Roger, which is on display in his office alongside photographs of Bubb with everyone from Benazir Bhutto to Princess Diana, suggests there is some merit in the charge.

But since the 2010 general election he appears to have moved seamlessly into the role of David Cameron’s closest sector ally. The Prime Minister even calls him Steve.

Bubb laughs at criticism of his chameleon-like tendencies. "It’s funny because one of the core purposes of Acevo is to represent the sector," he says. "To do that you have to be close to whichever government is in power. I regard the fact that I was close to Blair and now to Cameron as a triumph."

Labour leanings

It took some time to woo the Tories. Bubb says Acevo, aware of its perceived Labour leanings, invested much time working on them before the general election, but for a year afterwards it felt frozen out as the Tory rhetoric favoured small charities and a new kind of sector. "There was a clear feeling that the third sector establishment was not seen as onside," he says.

Then one Friday evening, while Bubb was sitting in his kitchen, his phone rang. It was Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former director of strategy. The two had a "fruitful and interesting" conversation that changed matters: "They realised that people like Bubb are indispensable to achieving what they want."

Bubb says Cameron’s voluntary sector vision goes beyond Blair’s because it sees social as well as economic benefits in charities running more public services. "Cameron sees it as a way of empowering citizens and communities," he says.

Bubb’s staunch support of the government’s health reforms prompted Cameron to name Acevo as a supporter of the Health and Social Care Bill during Prime Minister’s questions. Does Bubb understand the unease that the hard line he is peddling might cause to his members? "I’m peddling an entirely sensible position, which people will increasingly come to see as correct," he says.

Bubb’s admiration for the government is balanced by his strong condemnation of its cap on tax relief for charitable donations and its "potty" decision to abolish the loan fund Futurebuilders. But he has high hopes of Big Society Capital.

"The important thing is that it has equity from the four big banks," he says. "The only way we can grow this market is if the banks take it seriously."

Acevo now employs 10 fewer staff than it did before the change of government. Membership and income have fallen slightly, but Bubb says the organisation is doing relatively well because it has diverse funding.

New location

In September it is due to move across London from its New Oxford Street office to join the National Council for Voluntary Organisations at Regents Wharf, which Bubb mischievously calls "Acevo Towers".

Is it a precursor for merger? "I don’t think there will ever be an old-fashioned merger in which the two organisations lose their names and reform," he says. "There’s always a case for a body that represents chief executives. We have a trade union role and distinctive views on governance and funding issues. But we could operate some kind of federated structure, for example."

During his time at Acevo, Bubb has collected a knighthood, contracted diabetes and, because of this, cut down on his drinking. "At most of the receptions I go to the wine is atrocious, so I don’t drink it," he says.

His high Anglicanism features prominently on his blog. Does it influence his work? "In some ways I have seen the job as a bit of a vocation," he says. "Leading the people who run charities and not-for-profits is an important thing to do."

He says he’d like to guide Acevo through to the 2015 general election. "After that, who knows?" he says. He thinks his experience will be valuable in difficult times ahead. "I think the government will get less tolerant of the sector," he says. The reverse will also be true as charities’ beneficiaries howl increasingly with pain, says Bubb. But however long he stays, at least it won’t be dull.

- Read other articles about how Acevo has evolved over the last 25 years

The sayings of Bubb

"The concept of gentlemen amateurs running charities is close to meltdown"

Bubb calls for reforms to governance to discourage too many amateurs running charities in their spare time, May 2003

"Lunch is central to a productive and ordered society"

Bubb criticises the finding that the average British worker’s lunch is only 27 minutes, September 2004

"A disgraceful new development"

Bubb’s blunt assessment of the creation of the Health Lottery, September 2011


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