Sam Burne James: My day with the vain, corrupt, and unmerged

The Acevo Annual Conference was not the first time one of the sector's own has accused colleagues of prioritising self-preservation, writes Third Sector's reporter

Sam Burne James
Sam Burne James

There was a sense of excitement as the outspoken Sir Tim Smit, the co-founder and executive vice-chair of the Eden Project took to the stage at the Acevo Annual Conference 2014 yesterday. Smit is never backwards about coming forward (appropriate really, since ‘Tim Smit’ is a palindrome), and started his speech/rant – he admitted that he hadn’t really planned what he was going to say – by warning that he was "going to say some very horrible things".

Perhaps the most ‘horrible’ came near the end. "I have met more vain, greedy, corrupt people in the charity sector than I ever met in the business sector. It’s not politically correct to say, but actually it is true," he told the audience of charity leaders. This elicited a laugh, but stationed as I was at the front of the conference hall, and at this point scribbling furiously, I wasn’t really able to gauge the true reaction.

How did Smit arrive there? Well, he scathed about the performance of charities and social enterprise, calling the latter "the unwanted love child of Quasimodo and Mary Poppins", and social enterprise’s dearth of growth and ambition. One of his targets was venture philanthropists, the generally American people he said you find at events at the University of Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. "They have noticed that philanthropy is a nice word, and they hope you won’t notice if they put the word ‘venture’ in front of it. They use phrases like mining the bottom of the pyramid – and it’s disgusting," he said.

"We’ve got to revisit social enterprise to create a whole new range of social enterprises that are charitable in intent, and profitable in potential. I can’t say how tired I am of seeing the same old faces like me trotted out as leaders of supposedly successful social enterprises," he said.

Before he trotted off, he also said that charities were too reliant on being given money just because they were charities, and in response to an audience question about how a more efficient charities sector could be achieved, said: "If I am to be honest, some of the organisations need to go bankrupt and die."

The idea that we need a cull of charities, a bunch of streamlining mergers, is frequently raised in the sector. This well-rehearsed argument says there is too much duplication, that this creates inefficiency and a warfare between charities and their chiefs as they scrap for their own survival and personal cause, and that something should be done about it.

The Acevo crowd seemed relatively merger-friendly – it was stated as fact by several speakers and attendees during the day that there was too much duplication in the sector, and mergers were needed, and in no case was an opposing view advanced.

In fact, I even spoke to one chief executive who said he was in the early stages of discussing a merger – one of the barriers to this, he said, was that trustees enjoyed the social status of trusteeship, and didn’t want to jeopardise that. That sounds rather vain, greedy and corrupt, really.

This isn’t the first time one of the sector’s own has accused colleagues of prioritising self-preservation. There may be a further debate to be had about this – but before that, charities might like to ask whether they’re OK for the  outside world to eavesdrop on it.

This article was originally published on the Third Sector blog

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