News analysis: Should the NCVO pitch a big tent?

Mathew Little

With Campbell Robb gone to the Cabinet Office, many believe it's time for a new agenda.

Given the close relations in recent years between the NCVO and the Government, it seemed in some ways a natural progression when Campbell Robb was appointed last month to head the Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office. But his departure also deprives the umbrella body of one of its driving forces of the past eight years.

Robb, a former adviser to David Blunkett and Chris Smith, fronted the NCVO's campaigns and public affairs brief at a time of unprecedented government interest in the sector's social and economic contribution. The Charities Bill, soon to be an Act, a major Treasury review of the role of voluntary organisations in public services and the foundations of Prime Minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown's 10-year vision for the third sector were all put in place during his tenure.

Robb's successor has yet to be appointed, but his exit has coincided with a restructure at the NCVO, prompted in part by an increase in the number of directors when a director of enterprise, Richard Williams, was recently appointed. Ben Kernighan, director of services and development, has been given the additional role of deputy chief executive with "a more formal role in the high-level strategic direction for the organisation".

The job was not advertised.

Swelling membership

Robb concentrated on policy, but Kernighan is more concerned with the business side and services to members. Kernighan oversaw a massive rise in membership: numbers have more than doubled since 2000 to 4,800, swelled in part by allowing organisations with incomes under £10,000 to join free.

He was also responsible for its major role in the controversial national hubs of expertise, whose fate will be decided by the Capacitybuilders' board later this month.

The hubs endured a painful birth as rival umbrella bodies argued about their involvement and, according to consultant Jo Durning's report, bred suspicions in the rest of the sector that they were a closed shop of self-interested bodies. Some in the sector fear Kernighan's rise means an uninclusive approach from the NCVO.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of umbrella body Acevo, says the new era at the NCVO needs to be marked by a 'big tent' approach. "It's essential that the top leadership bodies in the sector work together," he says.

"There is a perception that this is not happening, and we need to tackle it. The members of our respective organisations would expect us to work closely together and not to compete."

Kernighan denies the NCVO has adopted too self-interested a strategy for an organisation charged with representing the sector as a whole. "We did some independent research on what members and non-members thought about how we work in partnership," he says. "The large majority thought we were honest, trustworthy, respectful of partners and inclusive. I'm not complacent about that - it is always a challenge to provide a voice for and services to organisations doing very different things. But we do a great deal to ensure that we listen to what our members need."

According to one former insider at the organisation, however, the NCVO still has some work to do to convince the sector it is truly representative.

"You get the impression that there is quite a lot of animosity towards NCVO," says the source. "Equally, a lot of people in the sector seem jaded by the wrangles of the NCVO and Acevo. There is something there, but some of it is whipped up by the sector press and some of it by a few individuals and consultants in the sector.

"But the key thing the NCVO has failed to convince people is true is that it is a membership organisation and that it is trying to represent the views of people in the sector. It carries out more consultations with the sector than any organisation I know of, but it doesn't always get a lot of people to respond - that's the trouble."

Certainly, a chapter in the NCVO's history is coming to an end. When the Charities Bill receives Royal Assent, it will have completed the 'Deakin agenda' associated with chief executive Stuart Etherington's 12-year reign at the organisation. Etherington commissioned Nicholas Deakin's 1996 report on the future of the voluntary sector, and the NCVO's public policy aims came to embrace many of its conclusions. The key elements of that agenda - the Compact, the Charities Bill and the new Office of the Third Sector - have now been attained, and the NCVO is seeking a new focus.

Part of that was expressed in a vision document published last year, which emphasised societal changes as much as political demands. "Significant changes have been made as a result of the Deakin agenda," says an NCVO spokesman. "What we're looking for now is more cultural."

- See Editorial, page 13.

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