Stephen Cook: Sir Martyn Lewis leaves the NCVO amid talk of sausages and rockets

Peter Kellner, who is taking over from Lewis as chair, tells the farewell event that it is his aim to make the public think of the sector as a space rocket, not a sausage, writes our columnist

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

This week’s burning question is whether the voluntary sector is a sausage or a space rocket. It was posed last night by the incoming chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Peter Kellner, at the farewell event for his predecessor, Sir Martyn Lewis.

Kellner, until recently president of the polling company YouGov, was talking about the mismatch between the reality of the voluntary sector and the wider public’s belief that in charities no one is employed, there are no charges and everyone is a volunteer busy giving stuff away. There was obviously a need to change this, but what would be the result? The more people knew about space rockets, he said, the more they liked them, but the more they knew about sausages the less they liked them: "Let us make sure that when we enhance public understanding they think of us as a space rocket, not a sausage."

Kellner, who referred to himself and the former BBC newsreader Lewis as "recovering journalists", said he thought the NCVO had two distinct roles: the first was supporting members and providing expertise on matters such as European funding and the law; the second was holding up a mirror to society, which at the moment reflected all the "stresses, tensions, suspicions and diappointments" in communities where the sector worked. He quoted lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village that he felt were relevant to contemporary, post-referendum Britain: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay." This was something the sector needed to address, he concluded.

Sir Stuart Etherington, the NCVO’s chief executive, said Lewis, who is known partly for wanting the media to carry more positive news stories, was "the most optimistic man I have ever met – for him the glass is not just half full but brimming over". Life had never been dull in Lewis’s six years as chair, Etherington said, and his main achievements had been the NCVO project on disclosing chief executive salaries and the recent Constructive Voices initiative, with which he will continue to be involved.

Lewis described himself as "the latest chair to be seen off by Stuart" and said he had been lucky to work with a long-serving chief executive who "knew where all the bodies were buried". He had been taken on for 56 days a year, been told by Etheringon that it would be more like 25, but had ended up doing between 80 and 100.

This put him in mind of the man who walked into a pet shop to buy a parrot and was offered three: the first cost £1,000 and had a first-class degree from Oxford; the second was £2,000 and had a Cambridge degree and an MBA from Harvard; and the third was £3,000. Why was this one the most expensive? "Well, he’s got no qualifications, but the other two call him chairman."

Lewis’s parting suggestion concerned the bacon sandwiches provided by the NCVO kitchen for early morning meetings: they were so good, he said, that it should set up a shop to sell them to the public. If such a trading arm were to be established under Kellner’s watch, sausage sarnies would presumably not be allowed onto the menu.

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