Sam Burne James: Key lessons from the NCVO conference

Think long term, prepare for political change and keep hoping for the sustainability fund, writes Third Sector's senior reporter

Sam Burne James
Sam Burne James

I spent Monday at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Evolve 2015 conference and subsequent dinner. Apart from hearing that fundraising self-regulation was "not working in its current form" and that the Tories' pledge to create a three-day volunteering leave requirement for larger companies "won’t be happening", here are a few things that got me thinking:

Understanding charities: in it for the long haul

The Understanding Charities Group, a council of the great and the good in the sector that is masterminding a turnaround in public perceptions of charities, is no short-term fix, according to its leader Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms. "We see this as a really long-term project, as a 10 to 15-year thing," she told a conference session – although she added that she didn’t actually have meetings scheduled right through to 2030. "Attitudes take a lot of time to shift," she said.

Overhead costs cannot be seen as waste

"Would anyone in this room say that talking about overhead costs is a good way to talk about our work?" asked Tris Lumley, director of development at the think tank NPC in the same session as Browning. Nobody in the (admittedly relatively small) room said they would. Lumley argued that splitting your income up in this way "talks to an agenda where operating costs are waste", and said that charities should take the opportunity to educate donors about how charities work. He said that in instances where potential donors raise questions about senior executive pay, or similar issues, charities could respond by saying that providing such information would not help the individual to properly understand the charity’s work.

He also referred to a recent report that said homelessness charities should continue using stereotypical images of beneficiaries (although a separate report suggested the opposite about older people's charities), saying this "smacks of us not being willing to stand up and set the agenda".

Line up your contacts in the cloak-and-dagger world

A session with Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of Alcohol Concern and Jonathan Ellis, ‎head of policy, research and advocacy at the British Red Cross, gave an insight into how charities can make their way in the often cloak-and-dagger world of public affairs and influencing decision-makers.

With Prime Minister David Cameron having indicated his intention not to seek a third term in office, Robinson said it was important for charities to line up contacts in the inner circles of all his potential successors, alongside relevant ministers, to make sure any influence they had was not scuppered by a change of personnel. "I feel like you need someone in the Theresa May camp, the George Osborne camp and the Boris Johnson camp, as well as the ministers themselves, in order to see things through," she said.

Ellis warned charities that going straight to a minister was not always the best option. "Sometimes you could be the wrong messenger – think about who the minister listens to and how can you influence them," he said.

A later session of the conference heard from Andrew Pierce, consultant editor of the Daily Mail, who advised charities that they would be better served in achieving their policy goals with this kind of quiet, back-room operating than throug "shouting from the rooftops". He also advised charities to be more transparent – the irony of that contradiction was noted on Twitter by the former Labour parliamentary candidate Simon Bowkett, and Gethyn Williams, partnerships director at Join In, who said: "Be transparent in your back-channelling." Good luck with that.

Local sustainability fund

The wait for the local sustainability fund, originally announced in March last year before being pushed back and delayed several times, continues. Regular readers of Third Sector will know better than to hold their breath, but there might, possibly, be some news on the horizon: I bumped into an official from the Cabinet Office who is working on it and assured me it was definitely still happening "in the next few weeks, fingers crossed".

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