Interview: Caroline Schwaller

The new chair of Navca on completing a merger, building bridges and being a critical friend to government

Caroline Schwaller
Caroline Schwaller

Caroline Schwaller takes over as chair of local infrastructure body Navca at a time when its income has dropped by nearly half, its workforce has shrunk and a merger is looming. "Coming in at this point is quite a challenge, and some people have said to me 'you must be mad'," she says.

Schwaller supports the planned merger with Community Matters, the national federation for community organisations, and her first priority is to see it through successfully. "At this time of change and constraints, we cannot go on operating the way we have done in the past," she says.

"At the same time, we have to be really sure that what we are doing has in mind the interests of our members and the strategic aims of Navca in its role as a representative organisation."

Both umbrella bodies plan to present detailed proposals to their memberships at emergency general meetings before the end of the financial year, she says. Her hunch is that there will be an interim governance arrangement before a permanent structure is introduced.

Next on her list of priorities is building relationships with other sector umbrella bodies, government departments and the Local Government Association. "Navca is about relationships and building bridges - creating an understanding between organisations, whatever their views," she says.

"Flexibility and willingness to change and adapt to opportunities is important. But you cannot be all things to all people and we have to be clear about what we can and cannot do."

What is her view of the relationship with the government, given Navca's recent criticisms that its localism legislation has led to private companies using voluntary groups as 'bid candy' and that big companies involved in the Work Programme are 'abusing local charities'?

She says that Navca should be a critical friend to government: "It is fundamentally important that Navca and its members are politically neutral, but that does not mean we don't have strong views about what is happening politically or that we identify with some government policies more than others.

"I think we have to be assertive, building relationships and understanding. I don't think we should be afraid, if we feel strongly about something and have sufficient understanding of the subject, to speak out," she says.

"Navca has fundamentally a good relationship with government and I like to think it trusts where we are coming from. I think it is others that are trying to politicise us."

Schwaller is also clear on where she stands in the debate about campaigning charities funded by government. "The right to campaign and lobby is very clear in charity law," she says. "I believe it should be possible to balance being paid by government or local authorities to carry out certain functions while at the same time being a critical friend."

Schwaller has worked in Navca member bodies for 25 years and was a Navca trustee for nine - six of them as vice-chair - until 2011.

Her day job as chief executive of Keighley & Ilkley Voluntary and Community Action means she also has recent first-hand experience at the front line.

Since she joined Kivca in 1999 its income has increased from £96,000 to £1m. From 2004 she led a £1.7m, six-year restoration project to transform a derelict former Methodist Chapel into a community centre, which provides offices for Kivca and boosts its income by hiring out meeting rooms.

The views of local Navca members are diverse, she says, but in general the cuts and the changes have been "overwhelming" in their impact, including the loss of expertise and relationships built up over many years.

"There is an opportunity in every change," she says. "We are the constant thread that remembers, and in Bradford we are valued as a source of local intelligence. But I don't think it's the same in all districts.

"People are very shocked and worried about the public spending cuts. Some organisations are completely against the idea of huge contracts and great big supply chains."

CV:

2012: Chair, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action
1999-present: Chief executive, Kivca
1996: Regional development officer, Yorkshire and Humber, National
Lottery Charities Board, now Big Lottery Fund
1995: Assistant chief executive, Age Concern Calderdale, West Yorkshire
1991: Development manager, Craven Voluntary Action

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