Joe Saxton: Is it time for new leadership at the NCVO?

Sir Stuart Etherington has achieved great things during his 24 years as chief executive, but the sector needs a fresh perspective, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

There is no easy way to say this, but I think it’s time for a new chief executive at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It is our most important and largest sector body, but it has proven unable to lead the sector through the recent choppy waters or articulate a clear vision of how to tackle the problems we face.

Its strategy is woefully out of date for the challenges ahead. It does not even mention fundraising or funding other than in passing, almost exclusively focusing on volunteering. Sir Stuart Etherington has led the NCVO for nearly 25 years and it’s time for fresh energy and a fresh perspective. Here are my five reasons why it’s time for a change: 

  • The political stature of the charity sector is lamentable. We are invisible from government plans in area after area. No Brexit impact assessment for charities, despite 58 other sectors allegedly having them. Even the NCVO’s own chair, Peter Kellner, admits that he was disappointed there were no political manifesto commitments about the voluntary sector at the last general election, and this needs to change. Well, it is the NCVO’s current leadership that has failed to deliver political clout for the sector. Who else is responsible for our sector’s political standing if not the NCVO?

  • In this day and age, we need a media-savvy and tech-savvy leadership at the NCVO, one that can make the sector’s case persuasively and articulately. Yet Etherington has said in the past "if you represent charities and you’re on the Today programme, you’ve sort of failed". How do we persuade the public, politicians and donors of the great work that charities do, if it isn’t by using the media? Both social and broadcast media are an asset to be exploited, not an enemy to be avoided.

  • It’s a terrible role model for the sector to have the length of a chief executive’s tenure be dictated not by the needs of the organisation, but because a departure date of 2019 makes nice neat round numbers: 25 years in post and coinciding with the organisation’s 100th anniversary. Ironically, Etherington told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2015 that trustees should have fixed-term limits enshrined in law to avoid having people in post a long time. He doesn’t appear to see the contradiction in ignoring his own advice when it comes to his tenure. The sad thing is that because he has stayed too long his many, many achievements are overshadowed.

  • When crisis hits, we need a chief executive who can stand up for the sector and put across the sector’s case in a persuasive fashion. That is what chief executives are paid to do. Yet when the Oxfam crisis hit, Etherington was nowhere to be seen. He was "working behind the scenes", I was told by one of his lieutenants. When the media storm hits, I believe it’s the job of the NCVO chief executive to be there speaking up for charities. Vicky Browning, chief executive of Acevo, was doing just that. At the NCVO there was an empty chair, left to be filled by other members of staff.

  • The sector needs a bloody good proactive plan. Even Etherington has agreed with that in previous interviews. That plan should be the sector’s roadmap for improving trust, funding, fundraising, political clout, engagement by the public and more. In the NCVO’s current strategy, from 2014, there is no sign of it. The sector is reacting to events again and again. Etherington says the charity sector shouldn’t be dictated to by the"‘red tops", yet nothing else is making the sector change. Without a clear proactive plan for the road ahead, it’s not surprising that the media makes the waves. The sector under the NCVO at the moment isn’t making any of its own.

I don’t imagine for one moment that a new chief executive at the NCVO will be a silver bullet. But he or she should be the catalyst and driving force for getting the sector out of the 20th century and delivering its potential to the full in the 21st.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy 

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