Timeline: From self-help to major player

Acevo began life as a series of informal meetings between charity chief executives who wanted to compare notes, then went on to be one of the major players in the voluntary sector. Mathew Little looks at the milestones along the way

Acevo at Number 10 in 2006: from left: John Low, Stephen Burke, Barbara Frost, Roger howard, Clare Tickell and Neil McIntosh
Acevo at Number 10 in 2006: from left: John Low, Stephen Burke, Barbara Frost, Roger howard, Clare Tickell and Neil McIntosh

First stirrings

Dame Elisabeth HoodlessThe idea of Acevo emerged in the late 1980s over prawn cocktails and medium-rare steaks at a series of relaxed dinners organised by Dame Elisabeth Hoodless (right), who was executive director of the volunteering charity CSV for many years.

The 1980s

Baroness HayterBaroness Hayter (left), then chief executive of Alcohol Concern and later Acevo's inaugural vice-chair, says there was a need for the meetings because the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was not satisfying all the needs of chief executives at a time when new policy issues were emerging, such as the transition from charities speaking on behalf of the users of services to providing those services itself. "We needed to have a conversation with other people in a similar situation," she says. "It was very informal - we just used to have dinner and talk through the problems we were having. It was a very protected environment."

1987: Acevo is born

Mike WhitlamThe informal network eventually became a formal body, the Association of Chief Executives of National Voluntary Organisations. The word 'national' was later dropped when it was opened up to heads of local infrastructure bodies. Acenvo was first run on a voluntary basis, with Mike Whitlam (on right of picture, right), then chief executive of RNID, as chair. It appointed its first paid chief executive, Dorothy Dalton, in 1992. It now has 2,000 members.

The 1990s: 'Blue-sky thinking'

The pre-21st Century Acevo was primarily concerned with governance issues for chief executives - one of its first publications was about the relationship between chief executives and chairs. But one charity chief executive also recalls its events as "a place where blue-sky thinking about the sector could happen". A peer-to-peer learning group was established, dinners were organised for chief executives with similar backgrounds and a legal advice helpline was created. "It was a place for chief executives to go and talk to people in a similar position," says Eric ApplebyEric Appleby (left), former chief executive of Alcohol Concern and later chair of Acevo. "And during that time they developed a sense that chief executives had a slightly different perspective on things."

2000: A new departure

Acevo made a conscious shift in direction with the appointment in 2000 of Stephen BubbStephen Bubb, a former trade union worker and member of Lambeth Council in south London (see profile). "Obviously, chief executives had expressed views up to that point," says Appleby, "but this was the stage when Acevo became more assertive and influential."

The Noughties: A changing role

Acevo began to make its mark campaigning for third sector organisations to receive the full costs from public sector contracts and developing a 'full cost recovery' template with New Philanthropy Capital. It became a committed supporter of the running of public services by the third sector, arguing in a 2003 book called Replacing the State? that the third sector could be "part of the answer" to public sector reform. It has advocated charities delivering services to offenders, been a vocal supporter of competition in NHS commissioning and launched public policy inquiries. This year an Acevo Commission on Youth Unemployment, chaired by David Miliband, called for action in 600 unemployment "hot spots".

Acevo today: "Always at the table"

Acevo's views have been sought by both the coalition government and its Labour predecessor. Liz Williams, chief executive of Sefton Carers Centre and an Acevo member since 2001, says it is "always at the table" when there is talk of policy change. Geraldine Peacock, former chair of the Charity Commission, says Sir Stephen Bubb, who was appointed during her time as chair of Acevo between 1996 and 1999, put the organisation on the map. "It was a bit of a wild card," she says. "But love him or hate him, it is his energy and provocations that have made Acevo an influential player in the sector and with government."

- Read other articles about how Acevo has evolved over the last 25 years, including an interview with Sir Stephen Bubb

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