When Sir Stephen Bubb passed the age of 60, he had been leading the chief executives body Acevo for nearly 15 years and was thinking it was time to move on. But he wasn’t ready to retire and the non-executive, portfolio path did not really appeal to him.
The solution to his dilemma came entirely by chance when an interview he gave on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in November 2015 was heard by Jonathan Smith, the head of corporate social responsibility at the fund management firm Woodford Investment Management, led by the highly successful fund manager Neil Woodford.
Smith liked what Bubb was saying about the need to improve the sector’s governance and management after the collapse of Kids Company. He got in touch, and the upshot was that Bubb stepped down in June last year to develop Charity Futures with funding from WIM.
"When the offer came along it was just perfect," says Bubb. "It meant I was still in full-time employment, doing what I was best at, which is strategic leadership, and could give up what I don’t like, which is all the management side, all the stuff that drains you."
For the first year the project was incubated in Acevo, after what Bubb calls "a slightly tortuous time" negotiating a deal with the board whereby he remained technically an employee but WIM funded his and an assistant’s salaries and on-costs and paid a facilities fee.
But at the start of June CF finally became an independent community interest company with its own London office, Bubb as chief executive, two other staff and funding from WIM of £400,000 a year for three years. It describes itself as a "centre of insight and innovation", and a programme of lectures and "provocations" is under way.
The first lecture will be given by Bubb in July at New College, Oxford: it will be about the history of charity. The first two provocations to be published will tackle the vexed questions of core costs in charities – a subject Acevo pioneered 10 years ago – and the outsourcing or sharing of back-office services.
Bubb, whose salary matches the £120,000 a year he received at Acevo, also plans to keep using his position to "occasionally shake the bloody trees", as when he wrote an article recently that challenged charity leaders to develop some backbone and speak out during the general election.
Meanwhile, his original plan that CF would establish an institute of charity governance has evolved since he was put in contact with the Oxford Centre for the Study of Philanthropy, a charity set up in 2015 by the Oxford professor Michael Earl and the philanthropist Stephen Barclay.
This charity’s plans to set up an institute of philanthropy had come to a halt, Bubb says, but discussions have now led to a plan to combine forces and set up an institute of charity and philanthropy studies in an Oxford college, with Bubb and Smith becoming trustees of the charity.
"What we want to do is get the institute up and running from 2018 and start doing research, seminars, discussions and conferences before then," says Bubb. "My role will be support and acting as a trustee of the charity. Eventually, when Professor Earl steps down, I’ll take over as chair.
"It was because this charity already existed that we decided to set up CF as a CIC, which gives us more freedom to work with the charity on establishing the institute. It keeps things fairly fluid so that, who knows, in three years’ time when the institute is up and running it might be the appropriate place for the stuff CF is doing."
CF’s founding document says if it closes its assets will go to the charity.
Bubb says existing philanthropy institutes focus on why people give and getting them to give more, but this new one will concentrate on how to get donors to give better, principally by persuading them that investment in charity infrastructure is important and confining donations to front-line projects is destablising.
Would WIM be involved in an institute’s long-term funding, estimated at £5m in the charity’s latest annual report? "Maybe, but actually high-net-worth individuals are involved," Bubb says. "The people behind the charity have already made connections and the idea would be to work with the college. I can’t tell you which college it is because it’s not yet agreed, but it’s looking good."
The story of how CF evolved and Bubb landed on his feet reveals the strong role played by chance: this is now reflected in its guiding philosophy, described by Bubb as "creative chaos" and "probably the complete opposite of what you would find in management textbooks".
He says: "Jonathan and I are both against the theory of change and believe in what I describe as the theory of serendipity. Everything that’s happened so far has been the result of chance encounters, thought provocation, ideas.
"We’ve agreed that we won’t have a strategic plan, a list of objectives, key performance indicators. We’ll have a very broad idea, which is improving charity governance and leadership – and that’s it. All that stuff about going away for a couple of days to develop your three-year plan: we’re not going to do it."
Bubb says Neil Woodford, who has been described as the nearest thing the UK has to the billionaire investor Warren Buffet in the US, is excited by CF. "It fits his philosophy of investment: developing patient capital, thinking forward, looking for companies that are going to grow, investing at an early stage in ideas.
"It’s a very refreshing and enlightened approach, coupled with the fact that he’s deeply uninterested in any personal glory. Unlike a lot of donors he’s kept out of it, doesn’t want to be quoted and doesn’t want to set up a foundation."
Bubb emphasises that CF is interested in staying small and working collaboratively with others rather than competing and empire-building, "although people might think that unusual for me". He thinks this is partly why he has encountered enthusiasm rather than scepticism in the rest of the sector.
He says another factor is that his former sparring partner Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, is on the board of CF and has been closely involved, not least by proposing the subject of the second provocation on back-office outsourcing.
"I’ve been struck by how positive it’s been," Bubb says. "I think there is a lot of goodwill towards it, coupled with the fact that since Kids Company, which gave rise to it all, people in the sector have become much clearer about the need for this kind of initiative."
Acevo moves on from the Bubb years
The charity chief executives body Acevo was not in very good shape when Sir Stephen Bubb left last year: income in 2016 was down 27 per cent on the previous year at £1.3m, and the annual report spoke of the need to find a new identity.
Bubb admits he didn’t find a way to fill the financial gap left by the withdrawal of government grant in 2012 and says that Vicky Browning, who took over as chief executive in February, faces "a tough old job".
Browning is already working on the new identity: as opposed to a think-tank, she is determined that Acevo will be what she calls a "do tank" with a new slogan: "Great leaders make the biggest difference."
Her plans involve boosting membership, becoming "less top-down and more collegiate", and enabling members to learn more from each other, mainly by holding more peer-led forums around the country.
Policy work has been scaled down to concentrate on matters that affect chief executives rather than the sector as a whole, and Acevo Solutions has ceased to offer paid consultancy services because of competition from bigger rivals.
Non-replacement of leavers and changes in hours have brought last year’s figure of 19.3 full-time equivalent staff down to 12.2. This tally includes a new head of business development, employed to increase income from partnerships with companies and suppliers. Membership is currently listed as 1,200, compared with 1,500 four years ago.
"The organisation has had a tough four years since the funding from the Office for Civil Society dried up," says Browning. " But the figures for this year are less grim and are turning round. We need to stand on our own two feet and become more stable by growing membership and corporate income."
Browning is in favour of business plans and structure and, after consultation with the membership, Acevo has recently adopted five "policy pillars": the freedom to campaign; diversity and inclusion; a level playing field on the commissioning of services, between sectors and between different-sized charities; improving regulation; and Brexit.
"On Brexit, we can’t represent every cause, but we can try to ensure that the right people from our membership can talk to people of influence," says Browning. "There was sometimes a sense that this was a difficult thing to do."
What about the suggestion, actively considered last year, that Acevo should just merge with the NCVO under the leadership of Sir Stuart Etherington?
"I had lunch with Stuart and explained what we do: as a result, he rejoined Acevo himself," says Browning. "They are for organisations; we are for individuals.
"We are in the same building as the NCVO: I get on with them and we talk a lot. We might not always agree, but I am a collaborator and believe in the sum of parts rather than competing. There’s too much personality in competition, and it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t mind who gets the credit."