Interview: Ben Kernighan

The new NUS chief executive says the priorities in his 15 years at the NCVO have been policy matters and representing the sector to government

Ben Kernighan
Ben Kernighan

When Ben Kernighan talks about his 15 years at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, a strong theme emerges: its priority of maintaining a clear voice for the sector in the face of changing government policies.

Kernighan, who rose from business development manager to deputy chief executive in his time at the umbrella body, takes up a new job as chief executive of the National Union of Students this week.

His time at the NCVO has been characterised by rapid growth - the organisation has gone from fewer than a thousand members to its current level of 10,000. But it has recently lost several large pots of government funding.

Kernighan says that, despite the cuts, the organisation's advocacy element has to be kept. "Our strategy has been to keep a strong, evidence-based policy and parliamentary capacity," he says.

Selling services

This means other areas have suffered cuts, particularly advice services, although Kernighan says the NCVO will compensate for this by offering more advice online and looking into whether it can sell services it previously gave away.

He says that the need to communicate with government has remained constant, and the NCVO needs to speak up about different issues under each administration.

"With the last Labour government we were looking at ways the government could support the sector: investing more in development, creating more capacity, finding opportunities to improve the tax regime," he says. "Now our goal has to be to persuade the government to cut the sector no more than the state itself."

The sector, he says, will have to communicate its value clearly in the run-up to the next election - something the NCVO is just beginning to work on.

Encouraging growth

"Some of the key themes are the role of the sector in the economy and encouraging growth and jobs," he says. "The sector makes a contribution to GDP because it employs people, but also because it helps many more people to become economically active. If you include the impact of volunteering, the contribution rises dramatically."

Kernighan says that volunteering is "really the heart of voluntary organisations". He expects that its role will grow as demographics in the UK change. "Even if we go back to consistent growth, having more older people will put more pressure on public spending," he says. "It will involve a lot more people looking after each other, and volunteering is a vital part of that."

One of Kernighan's most consistent battlegrounds has been the tax regime. He says there has been a dramatic change in Gift Aid and a growing number of new reliefs. Even now, there are proposals about digital giving and social investment. But at the other end of the scale there is the continuing battle to stop charities falling foul of taxes not intended to affect them, particularly VAT.

He says he has also worked to strengthen the voice of the voluntary sector outside the UK, in areas as diverse as Estonia and north Africa.

"One of the most tangible examples is the range of Compacts in the different countries," he says. "The other thing we've done in a lot of countries is to help them create a national umbrella. There's a lot of variety in the organisations that have sprung up, though. It's not just lots of little NCVOs."

Recent merger

The NCVO has merged recently with Volunteering England. Kernighan, who oversaw the merger, describes it as the most important thing he has achieved recently, and the one of which he is most proud.

The cuts and the merger have also led to job losses. Kernighan says that telling good staff there are not enough resources to keep them is the most difficult part of the job, and something he has recently had to do a number of times.

Kernighan feels his experience of advocacy will stand him in good stead in his new role. "I was attracted to the NUS because it works across a very broad range of public policy issues, from funding of education to the quality of teaching and equal access," he says. "It also has a very broad enterprise and membership element, and those are areas where I have experience.

"I was ready to be a chief executive. My early priorities are to listen to student unions, work with everyone else at the NUS on their plans for the next election and a strategic plan to replace the one that ends in 2014."

Kernighan's appointment was a controversial one. He drew criticism from an NUS trustee, Edward Bauer, over his £100,000 salary and his lack of experience as a campaigner.

But Kernighan refuses to be drawn on whether he is worth the money. "The NUS president has put forward a detailed response to the criticisms made," he says. "I have nothing to add to that."


2006: Deputy chief executive and director of public policy, National Council for Voluntary Organisations
2001: Director of services & development, NCVO
1999: Head of development, NCVO
1998: Businesss development manager, NCVO
1994: Statutory funding manager, the Terrence Higgins Trust

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