'Dazzling footwork and a sunny disposition' - reflections on the Sir Stuart Etherington era

As he prepares to step down after 25 years, sector insiders discuss the contribution of the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

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

Debra Allcock Tyler Chief executive, Directory of Social Change
"We have often disagreed on sector policy, but it’s hard to imagine the modern voluntary sector without Stuart and his influence. People have often described him as the epitome of the establishment, but I think that does not do him justice. His instinctive style is to have conversations out of the public eye, and much bad government policy towards the sector has undoubtedly been averted that way. He’s a complex and highly intelligent man."

Joe Saxton Founder, nfpSynergy
"Stuart’s impact on the voluntary sector over the past 25 years has been immense, but it’s hard not to feel that, like George Best, his early years were the best. When he took over the NCVO there was a raft of initiatives, implemented with dazzling footwork and charm. The most important was the Deakin report, setting the sector’s agenda for years. Like Best, he should have moved on or retired while still in his prime. In recent years the influence and energy have become less obvious. His review of fundraising was mixed: the Fundraising Preference Service has been an expensive white elephant."

Paul Streets Chief executive, the Lloyds Bank Foundation
Stuart has built important foundations at the NCVO and in the sector, in establishing the financial independence of the organisation, and thereby securing its ability to speak out, and in championing the independence of the sector by balancing the arguments about its role in public sector delivery at a time when some would have had us embrace it lock, stock and barrel. We look forward to working with Karl Wilding to build on Stuart’s foundations

Rob Wilson Minister for Civil Society (2014-17)
I immediately liked Stuart because he has a sunny but practical disposition. His attitude appeared to be that he would get the best for his members but understood the realities of government. He knew that you could either stand on the outside shouting or be on the inside influencing. When the Olive Cooke story broke, Stuart understood its implications quicker than anyone in the sector. He demonstrated real leadership in a sector lacking it and became the obvious choice to chair my review. He knew my mind on this issue and largely delivered what was needed. The sector has been lucky to have him. His pragmatism has probably won many concessions from ministers that would not otherwise have been possible.

Ben Kernighan Chief executive, Leap Confronting Conflict, and former deputy chief executive at the NCVO
At heart, Stuart is a lobbyist with an exceptional array of tools at his fingertips. He built long-term relationships based on trust and delivered what he said he would. He took some brave decisions: the successful charity tax campaign involved taking on the Chancellor, and he happily threatened judicial review when government bodies misbehaved.

Dame Mary Marsh Former chief executive, NSPCC and chair, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
His leadership has contributed so much to the scale, contribution and importance of what I call the social sector. Most importantly, the growth of and changes at the NCVO have been major contributors to enabling the impact and significance of the sector. Admitting small charities and community organisations as members by an exemplary tiered system of membership fees, with none for the very smallest, opened up support for the NCVO and its own direct influence, often powerfully, on behalf of the wider sector. A particular skill Stuart has is balancing public challenge and leadership on key issues and policy change, with much done in private with politicians, regulators, the media and others.

Peter Lewis Chief executive, Institute of Fundraising
Stuart has been a colossus in the sector and will remain an important elder statesman. From a fundraising perspective, his intervention in 2015 was strategically and tactically astute, if clumsily handled. He was right to recommend the Fundraising Regulator, transfer of the Code of Fundraising Practice to it and the merger of the PFRA with the IoF. But our members clearly felt he was at charities minister Rob Wilson’s beck and call on the Fundraising Preference Service, and it was important that the Fundraising Regulator was able to row back from the "big red button", which would have allowed people to block all communication from all charities. We all need the NCVO to be tackling the most important issues of the day. Everyone in the fundraising community will wish Karl Wilding all the best building on Stuart’s strong legacy, leading the NCVO to become more collaborative, more connected to charities large and small, more influential with government and providing leadership on key systemic weaknesses within the sector, particularly in relation to equality and diversity.

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