Managing 'upwards' is viewed by many chief executives as a waste of time, especially when they feel trustees are inadequate.
This explains, in part, Acevo's desire for change. Led by its extremely energetic chief executive, Stephen Bubb, Acevo has been at the forefront of the campaign to pay trustees and has now launched an inquiry into governance, attacking the "shameful apathy" of boards that reject the need for greater professionalism.
But we need to be careful. The imperative for trustees to take a regular hard look at themselves is not new; nor is it rocket science. Trustee self-assessment should be part of the wider audit process and should include such issues as whether trustees represent the people they serve in terms of diversity, age and gender. Self-assessment does not necessarily imply trustees should be paid; indeed, there are strong arguments against.
Many third-sector organisations are genuinely voluntary in many ways and have large numbers of volunteers. How on earth can one explain to them, who give their time and devotion for free, that the so-called 'voluntary' trustees are now being paid? If I were a volunteer, it would be guaranteed to put me off. Stephen Cook was right when he warned (Third Sector, 14 February) that charity boards could begin to look like the boards of FTSE 100 companies and that a cadre of people who were 'professional trustees' would emerge. These people would be singularly unlikely to be diverse - just look at how monochrome and male FTSE 100 boards are.
But there is a greater problem. Acevo backs government in its desire to increase the proportion of public services delivered by the voluntary sector. Just recently, Bubb encouraged David Cameron to back the Offender Management Bill. Cameron said it was privatisation being extended into the probation service, but Bubb argued that it would promote "client-focused services". If Bubb's view prevails, we will need to re-examine the meaning of 'voluntary'. Conventional public services, such as probation, would not normally fit that category.
Hitherto, the position has been that the voluntary sector must provide 'additionality'. If it simply provides a standard public service, it should do so as a 'not-for-profit' company, something that is different from a charity, but a perfectly respectable vehicle for delivering public services.
Governments will not entrust large sums of money to inefficient boards.
Equally, trustees have to be careful with government contracts, as the recent experience of CSV makes clear.
Acevo must think again. Either we invent a US-style not-for-profit company, or we realise we're part of the charitable sector, and that means doing things for free. We should not change the rules just because we want to deliver some public services.
Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering
AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...
- Acevo launched its inquiry into voluntary sector governance a fortnight ago. The inquiry is being led by Rodney Brooke, chair of the General Social Care Council. Acevo will canvass the opinions of every MP and local authority chief executive. Stephen Bubb said: "The diversity on our boards is significantly worse than in the public sector." - A 2005 study by Cranfield School of Management found that just 2.3 per cent of FTSE 100 board members came from ethnic minorities, and that there was not a single British-born black FTSE 100 board member. Last November, Cranfield issued research showing that only 10 per cent of FTSE 100 directors were women.
- The Offender Management Bill would transfer more probation services to the voluntary and private sectors. Welcomed by Acevo and a number of charities, the bill is being opposed by probation officers' union Napo, a group of Labour backbenchers and David Cameron on the grounds that it would lead to the privatisation of the probation service.
- The biggest US non-profit organisation is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Set up in 2000, it has a $30bn-plus endowment. It aims to enhance healthcare and educational opportunities and reduce poverty, but has been criticised for investing in businesses, such as oil companies, that arguably undermine its goals.