Sketch: Professionalism proves controversial at the Charity Law Conference

As Gillian Joseph from Sky News introduced the debate on the motion 'Is professionalism killing off charities?' she urged participants to "make it a clean fight".

Acevo director of strategy Nick Aldridge
Acevo director of strategy Nick Aldridge

But Nick Aldridge, director of strategy at Acevo, soon looked like he'd gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson after he was verbally mauled by both the panel and the audience.

He started proceedings by claiming that the stereotype of the sector was that it is run by "a bunch of fluffy do-gooders who couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag". He urged organisations to stop seeing themselves as victims of government negotiations and to embrace professionalism.

His theory was immediately rubbished by Lord Phillips, founder of law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite. He started, not for the first time at a charity debate, by pointing out that the Latin word for charities was "caritas", which means love - a notion he claimed was incompatible with professionalism. However, he showed little love for Aldridge, dismissing his argument as "crap" and his metaphor as "ludicrous".

Aldridge replied: "It's interesting to see love combined with such patronising contempt." "It's not contempt for you," Philips retorted quickly, "just for your arguments." Strangely, this did not seem to make Aldridge feel any better as he rapidly turned red. But he found some solidarity with Malcolm Hayday, chief executive of Charity Bank. "If professionalism is killing off some charities, maybe those charities deserve to be killed off," said Hayday.

Joseph had been tipped off about the paid trusteeship enjoyed by Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb, and steered the debate round to this issue. "We should get bloody emotional about this," complained Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change. "How can we say that a tea lady is worth less than the chair? This causes the kind of inequality that charities are set up to address in the first place."

A question from the floor on whether the sector employed too many consultants lightened the mood. Tesse Akpeki, from governance experts On Board, nodded with curious enthusiasm, considering that she is a consultant herself. "What is a consultant? Someone who takes your watch to tell you the time?" she joked, before slipping in a plug for her book on how to use consultants properly.

Surprisingly, given the reaction to Aldridge, the motion was upheld by a large majority. As he tried to slip away, Aldridge said it was the most hostile response he'd ever had. Is it the winning or the taking part that counts?

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