"Be bold" was the message to the sector from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations at its conference in April. But having read the NCVO’s general election manifesto, I can’t help but feel that it needs to take more of its own advice.
The NCVO straddles the sector like a colossus. Its importance to the sector is hard to overstate. It has the ear of government. The Deakin report from 1996 was a guiding blueprint for many years afterwards. Its leadership on the Give It Back George campaign was exemplary, and its support for campaigning has been unwavering.
But the challenges the sector now faces are multiple and complex. Fundraising is under threat from new data-protection regulation and a disenchanted public. Trusteeship is under the spotlight as the sector grows and changes. Income from government is falling and becoming more restrictive. The public is cynical about chief executive salaries and whether it is money is well spent. Companies cloak themselves in the values of the sector. The list goes on and on.
Now more than ever we need a bold vision for the sector and a clear set of ideas for how we empower the charities and social enterprises to do justice to their potential. Sadly, neither the NCVO’s election manifeston or its strategy begins to provide answers to the sector’s problems. Fundraising is not even mentioned in the current strategic plan.
The central importance of the NCVO to the charity sector (in England) is both a strength and a weakness. When the NCVO rails against the old system of self-regulation in fundraising, it is to some extent railing against the system created on its watch. If trusteeship is not what it should be, then part of the blame must lie with the low levels of funding provided to developing trusteeship over the past decade and longer.
My own experience of the NCVO’s approach to trust and confidence is another good example of where it needs to be more focused, energetic and strategic. When the NCVO and the charity leaders body Acevo took over from the Understanding Charities Group, the message was to "move aside and let the serious players make it happen". That was 18 months ago, and the first advisory group was held just last month.
No dedicated person has been appointed to lead on this work, despite it being identified as a key success criterion, and it doesn’t look like anybody will be. If the goal of getting the public to understand how 21st-century charities work had stayed separate, I have no doubt more progress would have been made.
Rather like the banks that were too big to fail, the NCVO now does too many things to focus on the really big issues. I worry that it is spread too thinly and the key issues don’t get real resource or focus. It needs to show it can be more effective than single-issue organisations that just focus on a single challenge: better trusteeship, promoting fundraising and funding, and changing the way the public see charities are but three examples.
The NCVO is absolutely central to any better future for the charity sector in England. It’s why every charity and supplier should be a member. The task now is for the NCVO to demonstrate its vision for the sector and chart a path through the stormy seas ahead. It needs to show the sector that it is capable of the bold innovative ideas that will transform the sector for the better. The sector needs the NCVO’s leadership now, more than ever.
Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy