Profile: Inside the world of Stephen Bubb

Love or loathe him, the chief executive of Acevo has helped put the sector on the political map. He'll be networking his way round Whitehall for a while yet, says John Plummer.

(Credit: Newscast)
(Credit: Newscast)

Few people in the voluntary sector polarise opinion as much as Stephen Bubb. Some warm to his energy and playfulness. Others are less impressed by his direct, occasionally confrontational style. His comment last month, when he blamed an "anally retentive official" for the Department for International Development's decision to restrict lobbying by organisations it funds, was classic Bubb: provocative, mischievous and not to everyone's taste.

Whatever personal views he inspires, few doubt he is an effective leader of Acevo, the membership organisation for voluntary sector chief executives. Since Bubb took charge eight years ago, the organisation has doubled its membership to 2,000 and income has increased six-fold to £3m. Bubb, however, says these achievements are secondary to "putting the third sector on the political map".

He admits he's not everyone's cup of tea. "I would never suggest I was a good candidate for the diplomatic service," he says. "I'm of the opinion that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. It would be difficult to drive through the changes we have achieved without upsetting some people."

His character and career have been significantly moulded by faith. His mother chaired the Mother's Union international committee and frequently entertained missionaries for lunch. Bubb, now 55, remains a regular church-goer. An Anglo-Catholic, he attends either All Saints in London's Margaret Street or the parish church in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, depending which of his two homes he is staying at.

"I have a strong feeling that you are not here to please yourself, but to give something back," he says. "So there was never any suggestion of a career in the private sector. I wanted a career where I could make a difference."

The son of a primary school headmaster, he attended Gillingham Grammar School in Kent, where he earned a scholarship to read philosophy, politics and economics at Christ Church, Oxford. "I was showing early stroppy leftie tendencies and my headmaster thought sending me there would teach me a lesson because it was full of Hooray Henrys; but I absolutely loved it," says Bubb, a Labour Party member since 1970.

On leaving Oxford, Bubb endured six months in the civil service. "It was deathly; I hated it," he says. He left to work as a researcher for Jack Jones, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, but hasn't retained much brotherly spirit from his 10 years in the union movement. "It's frustrating that unions have marginalised themselves," he says. "They have never had their New Labour reform moment."

In 1987, Bubb became lead pay negotiator at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the forerunner of the Local Government Association. "It was like swapping sides," he says. Eight years later he was seconded to the new National Lottery Charities Board.

He had never heard of Acevo when headhunters approached him in 2000. "Not many people had heard of it," he says. "Some friends said it was a sleepy organisation that would not suit me. But that had the opposite effect. I thought 'it might be sleepy now, but it won't be if I get my hands on it'." It was his first paid position in the voluntary sector, although he was familiar with the not-for-profit world after serving as secretary of Medway branch of Amnesty International and having set up the Lambeth Aids Action charity, which Princess Diana opened in 1986. How did he persuade her to do it? "Contacts," he smiles. Bubb is a consummate networker.

Besides fitting his Christian belief of 'giving something back', working at Acevo appeals to Bubb's interest in leadership development. On joining, he set out to give the voluntary sector a stronger voice and a stronger presence. "It bugs me that we have chief executives running large and important organisations, that we employ 1.5 million people, yet politicians and policy-makers try to marginalise the sector," he says. "They think about people doing good and volunteering, but they don't think about the contribution we could make to social and political life."

He has become the chief advocate for charities delivering more public services, although some people think he is too close to the politicians with whom he hob-nobs. "I've always believed in a strong relationship with government," he says. "But I don't think anyone could accuse me of being a lickspittle. You won't find anyone in the sector as strong at telling the Government where it has gone wrong. I'm happy to give them a good kicking, but we also tell them how to put things right."

Acevo now rivals the NCVO as the most prominent organisation speaking on behalf of the voluntary sector. So how did he feel when Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, told Third Sector last month that only his organisation was strong enough to drive a public policy agenda for civil society? "I'm not going to comment directly on that," says Bubb. Instead he lists the areas in which he says Acevo has led: full-cost recovery, long-term funding, public service reform, governance and the creation of the Office of the Third Sector.

Bubb often speaks in favour of paying trustees and receives £10,000 a year to chair the Adventure Capital Fund, which funds community enterprise. This year, the ACF won the contract to run phase two of Futurebuilders - the £215m government investment scheme for charities that want to deliver public services. At this point he gave up a day a week to chair Futurebuilders, losing 20 per cent of his Acevo salary and being paid the same amount by Futurebuilders instead.

Some thought the consortium that led phase one should have retained the contract, or that Bubb's position could give Acevo members an advantage with Futurebuilders. Others point out that the deputy chief executive of the NCVO was a director of the organisation that previously ran Futurebuilders, and this was not considered a problem.

"We won the contract by a good margin," says Bubb. "The only potential conflict would be if I were involved in any investment decisions. That can't happen, because I'm not involved in investment decisions." He talks about a "confluence of interests" and says: "It's about driving up public service delivery, which is something I'm regarded as an expert on."

Bubb certainly can't be accused of false modesty. Asked what Acevo's 30 staff think of him, he replies: "They think I'm great, I think." It's difficult to know whether he is being serious. Retaining staff hasn't always been easy for Acevo. Bubb says staff turnover was higher in his early days, but that things are more settled now.

He is never short of an opinion, which makes his recently started blog one of the sector's most readable. It name-drops shamelessly, chastises and amuses. "I was brought up in a generation when you wrote letters with a fountain pen," he says. An optimist, he frequently dismisses as "whingers" those who don't share his views.

Bubb doesn't like to dwell on regrets, but says he would like to have made more progress on giving the sector a more powerful voice. Stronger collaboration between the various representative bodies could make this happen, he suggests; he says this is something he will be pushing for in the future.

Bubb insists his own future will be a long one. He says he has absolutely no plans to leave and talks about working for another 15 years. It is news that will delight some and, quite possibly, cause dismay to others.

BUBB CV

2007: Secretary general, Euclid Network - the European body for third sector leaders

2006: Chair, Adventure Capital Fund

2000: Chief executive, Acevo

1995: Director of personnel and administration, National Lottery Charities Board

1987: Lead pay negotiator and head of personnel, Association of Metropolitan Authorities

1980: Negotiations officer, National Union of Teachers

1976: Research officer, Transport and General Workers Union

FIVE THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT STEPHEN BUBB

1. He claims descent from John of Gaunt, the 14th century son of Edward III. "It explains the strong leadership gene," he jokes. He is half Irish and his grandmother was a cousin of the Irish novelist Edith Somerville

2. When he was a boy he wanted to be a priest. He was head choirboy in the parish church in Wigmore, the Kent village where he grew up

3. He rents a house in Lambeth and owns a property in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, on the edge of the Cotswolds. His hobbies include listening to choral music and gardening

4. He reluctantly joined a gym this year after being diagnosed with diabetes. "I didn't do any exercise and I don't eat particularly well," he says. "I do more walking now. The taxi bill at Acevo has dropped enormously"

5. His brother, Nick, is a City analyst and his sister, Sara, is an expert on teacher induction. Occasionally all three have been quoted in the same edition of The Guardian.

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