Sir Stuart Etherington calls on the sector to be bold during the general election

The chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was speaking at its annual conference in London

Sir Stuart Etherington (photograph by Rebecca Fennell)
Sir Stuart Etherington (photograph by Rebecca Fennell)

The charity sector must be bold in speaking out in the face of the general election and Brexit, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has said.

Addressing the NCVO annual conference in London this morning, Etherington said he had not joined the sector to "cower or plead" and charities should not be put off campaigning by fear of regulation or succumb to the belief that they were too small or weak to change society.

And he said charities should not become mired in debates about funding loss in the wake of Brexit, which could be seen as self-serving.

The general election, he said, was "the time for us to stand our ground, to stand together, to be the voice for those that otherwise would not be heard". He said the sector should campaign with confidence.

"And I want to reiterate that, over the coming weeks in particular, you should speak up on the issues that concern you," he said.

"Now is not the time to tell ourselves that we are under threat, or that we cannot be a voice for those who have been ignored, or that we are being ignored.

"One of the biggest challenges we need to address is this tendency to tell ourselves that we cannot change the world around us. We can. We are. We do.

"I didn’t join this sector to cower or to plead, and I doubt you did either."

Etherington said that, although the debate on Brexit was set to dominate the political agenda for many years, many of the challenges charities were set up to solve would remain.

Dealing with them would require bold thinking, leadership and the courage to work with those with opposing views, he said.

"I want to be clear," he added. "Our agenda as a sector cannot and must not focus on what those externally might view as a self-interested, narrow agenda around funding as we embark upon massive, never-before-seen change."

Instead, he said, the sector needed to set out its vision of what a post-Brexit Britain should look like and how government intervention could help charities achieve that.

In terms of public services, he said, being bold would mean being ambitious for the sector while recognising the importance of consistently demonstrating its role as a constructive partner.

But in response to a question from the audience, Etherington said charities should avoid taking on any contract they felt went against their core values and avoid short-term contracts that might not realistically be viable.

The sector should be prepared to make the argument for volunteering as a valuable social contribution, rather than allowing it to be seen as a cheap alternative to paid staff, he said.

It should also be bold in its call for how dormant assets should be distributed by the next government, saying it represented an opportunity to secure the sector’s future, according to Etherington. 

"If the next government really wants to support local charities and put power and decision-making closer to communities, then use the funds from dormant assets to endow the fantastic and growing network of community foundations in this country," he said.

These funds could best be used if they were invested, allowing the income to sustain local charities for decades to come, he said.

"Being bold means thinking ahead, taking risks, looking at where we should be and taking the actions that we need to today in order to get there tomorrow," he said.

"Being bold means thinking long-term, recognising that sometimes change takes time and requires patient but ceaseless determination. But above all, being bold means making things happen. And I know we can do that."

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