Charities have become too introspective, says departing Etherington

As he stands down, the long-serving chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations warns that the sector must set its sights higher again

Sir Stuart Etherington (Photograph: Tom Campbell)
Sir Stuart Etherington (Photograph: Tom Campbell)

Sir Stuart Etherington, the outgoing chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has warned that charities have become too inward-looking and called on the sector to "set our sights higher".

Speaking at a leaving party as he stepped down from the top job at the umbrella body after 25 years, Etherington said there was one thing that worried him slightly about the voluntary sector.

"That is that the voluntary sector has become too inward-looking, too introspective, too worried, too anxious," he said.

"Lots of things have contributed to that, but I think we need to set our sights higher again and remember what we are here for: to challenge, to provide services for those most in need, to be reasonable in the way that we challenge, to be evidence-based in a society that increasingly denigrates evidence.

"We have a responsibility as the guardians of civil society not just to look inwardly, but also to look outwards for the benefit of those for whom we are there."

Etherington has been at the NCVO through periods of stark contrast, from the days of the Labour government, when large sums were spent supporting voluntary sector organisations, to the austerity measures introduced under the Conservatives from 2010.

Etherington was asked by Rob Wilson, charities minister at the time, to lead a review of the self-regulation of fundraising in 2015. This led to the abolition of the Fundraising Standards Board and the establishment of the Fundraising Regulator.

Etherington last night mentioned the RNLI, which was the first charity he visited after becoming NCVO chief executive in 1994. The charity was criticised in The Mail on Sunday newspaper this week for spending money on projects overseas while making job cuts in the UK.

"Let us not begrudge them the opportunity to invest in international work," he said.

Etherington was paid warm tributes during speeches at the function, held at the NCVO’s offices in London last night.

Two former charities ministers, Ed Miliband and Nick Hurd, sent recorded messages to Etherington, who will be succeeded by Karl Wilding today.

But Etherington will not retire until the end of the year, remaining on the NCVO payroll to work on a project about European cooperation.

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