Sir Stephen Bubb - 'I won't stop speaking up'

John Plummer meets the man who's been in charge of Acevo for the past 15 years and is still dividing opinion inside and outside the sector

Sir Stephen Bubb
Sir Stephen Bubb

In his time at Acevo, Stephen Bubb has been the first charity chief executive to address a full meeting of the Cabinet, received a knighthood and probably generated more headlines than anyone else in the voluntary sector.

Bubb, 62, celebrated 15 years in charge of the professional body for third sector leaders in September. He remains as playful and immodest as ever, constantly laughing and referring to his brilliance. "My vice-chair once said 'Stephen is like John Lewis - never knowingly undersold"," he roars.

His style might not have changed, but the landscape has. In 2002 Tony Blair's government was falling over itself to get close to charities. Public money was flowing and times were good for the Westminster-loving Bubb and for Acevo, which received £1.2m from government funds as recently as 2011.

This year it received nothing. Strategic partnership programmes with the Office for Civil Society and the Department of Health have dried up, as has funding from the now defunct Capacitybuilders. Acevo's income, which was £2.97m in 2011, was £1.78m in the year ending in 2015.

The government love-in is over, and the former civil society minister Brooks Newmark captured the mood last year when he urged charities to "stick to their knitting", a phrase Bubb says he detests and finds "extraordinarily disturbing".

Meanwhile, Bubb has also had health problems, including the onset of diabetes and prostate cancer, which is being successfully treated and about which he has written very frankly.

Do new times demand new leadership? Bubb says his experience, and that of his fellow long-serving sector knight Sir Stuart Etherington at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, is more valuable than ever. "In difficult times, having people with our depth of experience is bloody helpful," he says.

And while he stays, he won't be quiet. "I'm not looking for another big management job," he says. "I've got my knighthood. There's not much the government can tempt me or threaten me with, so I'm in a strong position to speak up, and that's what I will do."

Politicians of both major parties aren't spared. Bubb is clearly no fan of the civil society minister, Rob Wilson. "He can't really twig at his core what he believes about the third sector," he says. By contrast, the shadow civil society minister, Anna Turley, is described as "top class - a great fan of the sector"; but her leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is branded a "dinosaur".

Bubb, a former Labour councillor, predicts that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, will support charities' work on international development and campaigning but row back on the issue most closely associated with Bubb - charities providing public services. "I think they have the view that many in the Labour Party had in the 1970s: that the sector does interesting things on the margins and then the public sector takes over," he says.

Bubb has wider concerns about Labour. "With a weak opposition, we can expect a series of measures about austerity and welfare over the next five years that will seriously harm the sector's ability to support beneficiaries," he says. "The spotlight will focus more on us speaking up for communities because the opposition is not going to be doing that in any effective way."

Bubb cites changing attitudes to public service delivery as one of his four major achievements. The others are championing full cost recovery, chairing the 2014 Winterbourne View inquiry into transforming services for people with learning disabilities, and persuading Blair to set up the Office of the Third Sector, now the Office for Civil Society. Haven't others, including the NCVO, claimed some input into the creation of the OCS? "They're wrong," declares Bubb.

Acevo and the NCVO now share offices in London's Regent's Wharf, near King's Cross. Bubb bemoans the distance from Westminster but insists his relationship with the more statesmanlike Etherington is better than sector legend has it. "I had a bloody good dinner with Stuart on Thursday," he says. "I got home at 1.30am."

Regrets? "I've never been able to persuade funders to support a serious initiative around leadership," he says. "Kids Company showed the need. We need to think about how we can really ramp up our work in this area."

This is Bubb's new mission: trying to persuade government, foundations and donors to back a "big intervention" on the scale of the £30m that Thomas Hughes-Hallett secured for the Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics.

Bubb has spoken to "a big private sector funder", foundations and the National Lottery. "It's about convincing them that, as well as supporting individual charities, over the next five years, they also need to support the infrastructure and capacity of the sector," he says.

Details of what this proposed "charity excellence hub" would look like or do are sketchy, although Bubb talks about partnerships with academic institutions. He hopes to have firmer details by Easter. "It's worth a shot," he says. "It might even be my parting shot."

His other big issue is "protecting our right to campaign and promoting what charities do", which has brought him into conflict with the Charity Commission.

Bubb fears the commission will take an "unhelpful line" when reviewing campaigning advice and thinks it should continue to wield the carrot as well as the stick. "I'm concerned that they're interpreting their role, which is maintaining trust and confidence in charities, purely as enforcement," he says.

According to Bubb, the commission used a "smart combination of advice, support and a potential stick" to help the disability charity Scope overcome  financial difficulties in 2008-9, and should have done the same for Kids Company.

"There's no point waiting until a charity goes bust and then having an inquiry," he says. "The question is what they were doing at the point where it was noticeable it wasn't holding reserves. You can't have a whole heap of staff looking at accounts for the local bowls club, but Kids Company was incredibly high profile."

Bubb is also concerned about what he calls the commission board's right-wing composition. "They've got some good people, but it's light in terms of sector experience," he says. "Some of this reflects the current chair. Chairs have quite an influence on who's appointed."

He insists he and the commission chair, William Shawcross, do get on, despite their public differences: "I like William. He's charming, pleasant, interesting. We both like opera and are keen on the Book of Common Prayer. You can get on well with people and not completely agree on aspects of the job."

Bubb's nine-year term as chair of the Social Investment Business ends in March. He's also a trustee of the hospice charity Helen & Douglas House, whose shop in Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds receives cast-offs from the Camerons and Jeremy Clarkson.

Chipping Norton is close to Charlbury, where Bubb lives when he's not in London. He says he'll eventually retire to Charlbury, but not just yet. "I never thought I'd still be here after 15 years, but the reality is that it's a fascinating job and I love doing it," he says.

WHAT OTHERS THINK...

It can be difficult getting people to talk on the record about prominent leaders, but not when Bubb is that person.Opinions about him are divided. Former colleagues talk warmly about his energy and intellect. Others say he lacks principles and ethics.

The former civil society minister Nick Hurd MP dealt with Bubb regularly for six years. "Beneath that mischievous humour, he's extremely serious about the sector and his members," says Hurd. "He had a different style from Stuart Etherington. He was noisier and more confrontational, but that's been valuable to the sector. There needs to be a bit of grit in the conversation."

Hurd admits there were plenty of conversations about "bloody Bubb" in Whitehall, particularly when he was suspected of briefing journalists against the big society.

"Every year a story would appear in The Times under the headline 'Big Society is Dead', and various special advisers would say 'have you seen what bloody Bubb has done?' By the end we just accepted that Groundhog Day had come round again."

Bubb's media skills are a feature of his leadership, says John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, who was Bubb's chair at Acevo for four years. "Stephen was happy to let journalists have his mobile number," Low says. "If they phoned him at 11pm, he would respond. That made him relevant and kept him on the edge."

Low, who describes Bubb as a high-performing risk-taker, adds: "Stephen likes to walk up to the edge, look down and sometimes stretch his foot over, just to see what it's like - and sometimes you have to grab his collar."

But Bubb's jovial exterior belies a shrewd mind, says Low. "People forget he's an Oxford graduate: he's academic, a thinker and a high-church Anglican," he says. "He will search for a church service if he's away from home on a Sunday, which doesn't fit the popular image of him. Whoever follows Stephen will have to be strong and have a clear vision that takes Acevo beyond the Stephen Bubb era."

RNIB chief executive Lesley-Anne Alexander, who succeeded Low as Acevo chair, describes herself as a Stephen fan. "I've never met anybody with so much energy for the wider sector," she says. "People like to characterise him as having a good time. He is a bon viveur, but he's also intelligent and passionate."

Alexander says Bubb remains the right man to lead Acevo, even after 15 years. "Since 2008, people have been taking lumps out of the sector, so stability in organisations such as Acevo is needed," she says.

In a statement, NCVO chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington describes Bubb as a "confident communicator". He says: "While we may have slightly different styles and remits, we have worked closely with him and his team."

Not everyone talks positively about Bubb. The voluntary sector adviser Kevin Curley, former chief executive of the local infrastructure group Navca, describes him as "the ultimate pragmatist", lacking in principles.

"I always found him difficult to deal with and a man who's best avoided," says Curley. "I resigned my membership of Acevo halfway through my time at Navca."

He says Bubb does not recognise the importance of small, local charities, and adds: "He takes any criticism of his policies personally and strikes back in a personal way in his blog, which I find obnoxious, and in letters."

John Tate, a voluntary sector consultant and accountant, is even more critical, calling his management style "me, myself and I". Tate also thinks Bubb "flaunts" his overseas travel on his blog when the sector is going through difficult times, and that Acevo has not been sufficiently in touch with grass-roots charities.

"Right now the sector needs new faces who really reflect the values of the beneficiaries," says Tate.

Former colleagues are more forgiving. The Labour MP Peter Kyle (left) was Bubb's deputy before being elected to the Hove constituency this year. He describes Bubb as a "fearless, outspoken advocate for the sector who provokes debate".

He says the sector needs more forthright champions, like Richard Branson in the private sector. "The charity sector seems to have a view that it should be consensual, which traditionally means that when it faces a crisis it feels inhibited," says Kyle. "But Stephen has never conformed to that sentiment."

He says Bubb can be a "pretty terrible" manager who is "focused on the stars rather than the horizon", but overall he praises him as a robust sector defender.

Seb Elsworth, chief executive of the social investment foundation Access, worked at Acevo from 2006 to 2011, latterly as director of strategy. He says Bubb is a "big-picture person" who is "always leading the charge" but he can be over-enthusiastic at times. "His blog was the thing I worried about most," says Elsworth. "He once broke our own press embargo."

Quick Quiz: Mozart, Dickens, fine wine and Coronation Street

Mozart or Bach? It depends on the mood I'm in, but I'd have to say Mozart because of the operas.

Dickens or Dostoyevsky? Dickens, because of his social action. He was very involved in the early work of Battersea Dogs Home.

Black cab or bus? Black cabs I regard as black buses.

Caravaggio or Damien Hirst? Caravaggio. Hirst is too modern.

Wine or lager? Wine. Fine wine, actually. Nothing too cheap.

Red or white? Both. A good meal starts with champagne, moves on to a fine Burgundy with the first course and claret with the meat.

Blair or Cameron? Blair. Because I was with him at Oxford.

Ballet or opera? Opera. I've been going since my 20s and have been to opera houses around the world.

Gillingham or Arsenal? Gillingham. But I'm not a football fan.

Coronation Street or EastEnders? Coronation Street. I do watch it, but I prefer The Archers.

Cornwall or Corfu? Cornwall. It's lovely down there.

Fiat or Ferrari? Neither, actually - I don't drive.

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