Newsmaker: Grass-roots guru - Kevin Curley Chief executive, NACVS

John Plummer

Continuing to flex the muscles of local voluntary action.

For a man who this month lost what he himself described as the most important vote in his organisation's history, Kevin Curley looks remarkably cheerful.

He had urged members at the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Service's annual conference to let thousands of infrastructure organisations into the NACVS fold.

Their presence, he said, would make NACVS stronger. Their absence, he warned, could jeopardise their chances of competing with larger organisations for grants that support the voluntary sector infrastructure.

Sixty-seven per cent agreed, but not the three-quarters required. Curley looked down, smiled ruefully and got on with it.

It's what he's been doing for more than 30 years on his tour of duty within the CVS movement. York, Newcastle, Hull, Derby and Sheffield have all felt the Curley touch.

He stumbled into the rank and file by chance. Two years into student life at the University of York, he got involved with a CVS night shelter project. "I decided this was where my passion for trying to make things better was best placed," he says.

His first salaried CVS post came in 1974. Apart from two stints at VSO and a three-year tenure at the helm of brain injury charity Headway, he has stayed with them. He became the umbrella body's chief executive in 2003.

The Sheffield-based network represents 300-plus CVSs, the infrastructure bodies that support local voluntary action. Leading NACVS may not be as sexy as captaining the England cricket team, but the organisation did make headlines last year when it won the now infamous "Leicester case".

The incident arose when Leicester City Council cut its voluntary sector budget by £1.5m after the briefest of consultations. Dozens of small charities, marshalled by NACVS, forced it to back down.

The case, which Curley describes as "truly historic", showed the CVS movement had muscles to flex. "It was the first time that small, local voluntary groups led by a CVS had used a judicial review to challenge misconduct by a local authority in the High Court," he says.

The reverberations made councillors everywhere think twice about trampling over the sector, says Curley, who says that relations between town halls and charities are "definitely improving".

With the Government wanting charities to run more public services, it has to. To highlight the point, this year's NACVS conference, at which members agreed to adopt a quality kitemark and to change the name of the organisation to the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, adopted the theme "stronger together".

Local government minister Phil Woolas delivered suitably cuddly words to make delegates feel valued, but Curley is optimistic that beneath the Westminster rhetoric lies a real change in local authority attitudes.

Initiatives such as the Compact and Local Area Agreements, which judge councils by the strength of their sector collaboration, are beginning to bite.

Curley also believes charities have earned respect. "The local sector has proved its worth," he says. "It has led the way in areas such as HIV and Aids, homelessness and domestic violence. More people in local government are convinced of that."

With the outside war being won, Curley must decide whether to resume the battle within. Will he try to persuade members to embrace thousands of other local infrastructure bodies again in 2006? "The debate will carry on and the trustees must decide whether to return with this proposal," he says. You suspect he won't rest until it happens.

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