Mark Flannagan: Sir Martyn Lewis is indulging in navel-gazing

His call for the NCVO to form its own Acevo-like body is self-indulgent, given the difficult times we live in, writes our columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

I was a little annoyed by the call from the outgoing chairman of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations for it to form its own version of Acevo (Third Sector, 8 November). Not just because I think his view completely misses the point of having a leadership body for charity chief executives, but also because, yet again, here is our sector indulging in navel-gazing about merger and acquisition.

To deal with the first point. Why should our sector, with arguably 400,000 charities, a combined income of somewhere over £60bn and a workforce numbering hundreds of thousands, have just one voice? In particular, why should the chief executives of these charities not have a voice and representation of their own?

The job we do is unlike any other and carries specific pressures that only our peers can really understand. We need a professional body that understands this and makes our collective case. Acevo is that body. The NCVO is separate, for charities as organisations rather than we individuals. This is just like the Institute of Directors, which speaks for individuals, and the Confederation of British Industry, which speaks for industry. Both are players in the field. Both have power and authority born of their memberships. Both need to exist, for different purposes.

But it is the fact that Sir Martyn Lewis denigrates another part of our sector that gets my blood boiling. This is self-indulgent as well as unnecessary. At a time when we face major challenges to civic cohesion and massive economic uncertainty, with the world becoming more unequal at every level, we are being asked to accept that taking pot shots at each other is legitimate. All this is based on an apparent inability to get on and collaborate.

Well, guess what? Sometimes individuals and institutions see things differently and have different methods to achieve the same end. It’s called diversity and plurality. We are not one homogeneous, saintly sector. We are vibrant, passionate, argumentative, driven, bloody-minded and determined to do what is right based on our experiences. That means one size does not fit all. It means we need options, not monopoly.

This might be uncomfortable for some. Some in our sector hate the mere idea of "competition". In reality, competition can help to drive innovation and growth in our sector, as it does elsewhere. This competition doesn’t mean we have to have sharp elbows or seek to beat down those around us. Competition can be part of a natural and healthy instinct to do better, based on inspiration from others who might show the way.

Of course, collaboration is good, but it can and should be between bodies. We are grown up enough as a sector to appreciate that different approaches can be taken to the same issues. That is the way to lead our sector; it is what our society needs us to do. For goodness sake, let’s look outwards again and do our job of creating a better society.

Mark Flannagan is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer. @MarkFlannCEO

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