Opinion: Hub ho, hub ho, it's off to work they go

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

It's that time of year again, when pantomime fills theatres with awful puns and that terribly English enthusiasm for cross-dressing. Amid all the hubbub about capacity-building hubs (Third Sector, 11 January), the 'look behind you' moment was surely the Big Lottery Fund's £634,000 grant for NCVO's version of a hub for campaigning.

It is hardly surprising that charity's role in demanding change was ignored by the hub-makers, when an increasing proportion of the voluntary sector seems focused on contracts, Compacts and cosy relationships to supply services for a less-than-fair price, and not on campaigns, complaints or stirring up trouble.

Although equivalent to a mere 4 per cent of the £16.5m the six official hubs have to play with, the BLF cash could have a significant role in helping many charities to maintain their rebel-with-a-cause commitment to achieving real improvements for those whose interests they serve.

Lest we forget, boosting a charity in all six areas of the hub concerns of finance, governance, ICT, performance, workforce and volunteering offers no guarantee it will change the world rather than very efficiently maintain an inadequate status quo for beneficiaries who need advocacy and action.

Perhaps that is one reason why charities are said to be underwhelmed by the hubs. Or could it be that the very concept of hubs sounds like something dreamed up by management consultants - that costly blight on the public sector, from PricewaterhouseCoopers to the appalling Capita - as the wrong answer to the wrong question?

And should we be concerned that each hub instantly acquired the feel of a club in which a mixed bag of insiders will spend almost all the cash on salaries, consultancies, surveys, websites and offering advice to others, whether they want it or not?

There is plenty for a new campaigning hub to do, not least in reminding charities that it is not their role to solve every problem or meet every need. They can often achieve far more by applying the right amount of pressure and publicity to a specific issue while providing a platform for those denied a voice.

Still, it's panto season - let's be positive that the Snow White of charity has found her seven hubs of restricted stature.

But crucial questions remain. The campaigning hub must be the never-satisfied Grumpy, but which hubs deserve to be known as Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy and Sneezy?

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