To join or not to join? That is the question

The voluntary sector's umbrella bodies are enjoying record levels of membership. But are they all on the same wavelength, and how could joining one benefit your charity? Mathew Little investigates.

If anyone in the voluntary sector knows how street fundraisers feel, it is probably the umbrella bodies. When they attempt to draw the attention of busy charities to cross-sector issues or professional development, the umbrellas are often brushed aside by organisations with much more pressing concerns.

"We are all too busy doing the things we are set up for," says Mark Astarita, fundraising director of the British Red Cross. "If the subject is Make Poverty History, there will be a ton of people passionate about making it happen. If it's the regulations around Gift Aid, which is perceived to be boring but could add up to something valuable, then it tends to interest only the enthusiasts."

But the enthusiasts are now enjoying more of the limelight. As government interest in charities has turned the sector into something more than an abstract concept, the mediation of umbrella bodies is becoming more sought after. Boosted by a range of discounts, membership of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the nearest thing the sector has to a collective voice, has jumped from 1,500 in 2000, a tiny fraction of the 164,000 general charities in England and Wales, to 5,100 today.

Founded just after the First World War, the organisation has spawned several bodies that have become household names in the sector, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux, Age Concern and the Charities Aid Foundation, the charity that promotes philanthropy. It was instrumental in promoting the Charities Act 2006 and in developing the Compact. Generally, it speaks out on behalf of charities on issues such as National Lottery funds and the involvement of voluntary organisations in public services. It also offers funding and joint working advice and bulk purchasing discounts in areas such as IT, insurance, training and office services.

It is these inducements that can be the deciding factor in securing new members. According to Maurice Wren, director of NCVO member Asylum Aid, membership benefits are the bottom line. "A lot of us are members of umbrella organisations because there is some business benefit to be gained," he says. "We might take issue with some political positions adopted by those organisations, even though they might be the result of membership consultations."

Environmental charity BTCV rejoined the NCVO last year. The reason, according to Tom Flood, chief executive of the charity, was an appreciation of how much staff in local BTCV offices were using NCVO policy and legal advice or buying its publications and attending its events. "I tend to see the NCVO only from a national perspective," he says. "I hadn't appreciated that people find information-led service of great value at a local level. I think for big charities that operate locally, the NCVO is very relevant."

Flood also ascribes a renewed significance to the NCVO's national voice. "The NCVO is attempting to position itself as leading the debate that needs to take place about the role of third sector organisations," he says. "Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, is attempting to set out the stall for the third sector independent of a Brown government or a Cameron government. That's quite important. I personally believe that the NCVO has a degree of independence in terms of setting tone, which will be important in the coming years."

If the NCVO aspires to represent the sector at a national level, the local sphere is the preserve of the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action. It split from the NCVO in 1988, and became the independent umbrella body for 350 local councils for voluntary service in England. But last year its members voted, in the most radical constitutional change in the organisation's history, to grant full membership to local infrastructure bodies such as learning and skills consortia, BME organisations and community empowerment networks. Membership could rise from 360 to 700 by 2011.

Relations with local authorities and compliance with the Compact are a key part of Navca's campaigning work. There have also been some clashes with national charities, as when local councils for voluntary service began losing contests to run local infrastructure services for the voluntary sector to national organisations.

While the NCVO and Navca provide the corporate voice of the voluntary sector, there are other institutions that embody its different professional elements. And it is here that some of the most radical shifts in sector representation are taking place. Since the millennium, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has changed from a professional networking association into the sector's most vocal and ambitious lobbyist. Under the energetic leadership of Stephen Bubb, it has actively attempted to mould debates on issues as diverse as investment practice, full cost recovery, the payment of trustees and the sector's involvement in public services.

The result has been gaining the ear of government, but also creating some fissures within the sector. Acevo has clashed with the NCVO on the extent to which public services should be transferred to the sector, and there have been tensions between the two leaders. Acevo has also alienated some potential members. "I disagree completely with almost everything Bubb says," comments one chief executive.

But there is recognition that Acevo has been instrumental in raising the profile of the sector in Whitehall. "I think it has captured the political high ground over the past few years," says Flood. "Its ability to get ministers into a room and for us to influence what is going on at the moment is great."

The Institute of Fundraising, another professional association, has also entered the policy arena, though rather less dramatically. The institute, rather than the NCVO, has been the sector's voice on issues such as changes to Gift Aid and the regulation of fundraising. It is a role bolstered by an organisational as well as an individual membership structure that includes most of the top fundraising charities. The Charity Finance Directors' Group also has plans to develop more of a policy presence.

Such competing voices have prompted a measure of irritation in government that the sector does not have a single unified position or negotiating stance. Some in the sector welcome the plurality of views. "The sector is not homogeneous," says Flood. "It's important that there is open debate."

Others lament diffused power. "We're missing the CBI of the sector," says Astarita. "The NCVO has got its act together recently, but it's still punching below its weight because it's never going to have the money to do the business. It hasn't got the independence or financial security that could make it a powerhouse." Astarita advocates a radical plan of merging the NCVO with the Charities Aid Foundation and bringing other professional bodies such as Acevo and the Institute of Fundraising together in a single body. "The NCVO will occupy the CBI role in a professional body that will educate and inform its membership and create standards," he says.

But whether unified or independent, sector umbrella bodies will still have a demanding task to convince overworked and under-resourced charities of their value. "For us out in the field, you either love umbrella bodies or hate them," says Wren. "They can do good things if they are on your wavelength, but they can seem like the biggest irrelevance if they are not, and an expensive irrelevance as well."

NCVO

Umbrella body for voluntary and community organisations in England

Membership: 5,100

Fees: Full membership starts at £94 a year for organisations with annual income under £100,000 and rises to £689 for those with annual income above £5m. Affiliate membership for public and private sector bodies

Key people: Chief executive: Stuart Etherington Chair: Sir Graham Melmoth, former chief executive of the Co-op Group

Income: £10.9m in 2005/06: 62 per cent grants and contracts from public bodies, 22 per cent other earned income, 8 per cent voluntary income, 7 per cent member subscriptions, 1 per cent investment income

Expenditure: £10.1m

NCVO says: "The main aim of the NCVO is to give voice and support to voluntary and community organisations. Founded in 1919, we are the largest umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in England and have sister councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The NCVO is a lobbying organisation, representing the views of the sector to government, the EU and other bodies."

Navca

Umbrella body for local voluntary and community sector infrastructure organisations in England

Membership: 360

Fees: From £118 a year for organisations with annual income below £236,000 to £283 for organisations with annual income above £566,000

Key people: Chief executive: Kevin Curley Chair: Mike Martin, director of Reading Voluntary Action

Income: £1.3m in 2005/06: 49.4 per cent from grants and contracts from public bodies, 37.6 per cent other earned income, 7 per cent member subscriptions, 4.1 per cent voluntary income, 1.9 per cent investment income

Expenditure: £1m

Navca says: "We are the national voice of local voluntary and community sector infrastructure in England. Our 360 members work with 140,000 local community groups and voluntary organisations that provide services, regenerate neighbourhoods, increase volunteering and tackle discrimination in partnership with local public bodies. Our purpose is to promote local voluntary and community action nationally. We do this by providing our members with information, advice and support and development services."

Acevo

Individual membership group for chief executives of voluntary organisations

Membership: 2,060

Fees: From £160 a year for chief executives in organisations with annual income below £150,000 to £485 for those at charities with annual income above £5m. One-off joining fee of £45

Key people: Chief executive: Stephen Bubb. Chair: John Low, chief executive designate of Charities Aid Foundation

Income: £1.5m in 2005/06: 34 per cent from membership fees, 18 per cent from grants, 12 per cent from publications, 11 per cent conference and event fees

Expenditure: £1.5m

Acevo says: "Beginning as an informal network of chief executives, Acevo has grown to be an effective leadership organisation, developing and linking leaders across the UK and further afield through the establishment of a European and international programme of events. Acevo wants to promote an enterprising, innovative third sector stemming from strong professional leadership. We have focused on achieving longer-term funding commitments and third sector involvement in public service delivery."

The Institute of Fundraising

Membership body for fundraisers, including charities, non-profit organisations, consultancies, professional fundraising organisations and agencies

Membership: 4,350 individual members; 250 organisational members

Fees: Individual associate member: £70, plus £25 enrolment. Full certificated member: £80. Organisations below £1m: £150. Organisations above £100m: £9,000

Key people: Chief executive: Lindsay Boswell Chair: Joe Saxton, co-founder nfp Synergy

Income: £9.5m in 2005/06. Includes £6.7m from the Home Office to promote payroll giving, £922,000 from a major legacy to run the Remember a Charity campaign and £637,000 from the Home Office and Scottish Executive to host the Fundraising Standards Board

Expenditure: £4.8m

The institute says: "The institute works to promote the highest standards in fundraising. Individual membership is designed to provide resources, personal development opportunities and support. We also support isolated fundraisers with our network of 12 national and regional and 14 special interest groups."

CFDG

The Charity Finance Directors' Group is the membership body for charity finance professionals

Membership: 1,393. Primary membership is open to finance directors, finance managers, treasurers and chief executives responsible for finance. Secondary membership is open to one additional member from the same charity as the primary member. Associate membership is open to those previously employed in charity finance. Corporate individuals with an interest in charities can also subscribe.

Fees: From £130 to £670, depending on income and location

Key people: Chief executive: Keith Hickey Chair: Paul Breckell, finance director designate of the RNID

Income: £770,000 in 2005/06, including 49 per cent membership fees, 41 per cent earned income, 8 per cent voluntary income and 2 per cent interest (no income from government)

Expenditure: £692,000

CFDG says: "Our mission is to promote best practice. We have split our work into five areas: membership services, professional development, best practice, policy and commercial activities."

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