Opinion: It's our difference that should define us

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

Acevo's update is full of interesting material. This month's enclosures include a folder that I first take to be an advert for a consultancy, prominent in the high-value bottom right-hand corner. On second glance it is A Manifesto for the Third Sector's Leaders, from Acevo itself.

It defines Acevo's vision for the third sector's leaders. But hold on - over the page it sets out Acevo's vision for the whole sector, which it "will work to deliver in partnership with its members". Call me old-fashioned, but to me Acevo is its members, so the idea of us working in partnership with ourselves is odd.

The principles are attractive if repetitive: a modern, enterprising third sector is professional and passionate, well led, well governed and... enterprising.

I read something quite like this in Winning, a profoundly shallow text by Jack Welch, who made GE into the world's most profitable business.

But 'modern' is very New Labour: 'modern' and 'enterprising' has a distinct echo of the NHS plan for England. My heart sinks. Where is the underlying principle that marks out the sector - independence of thought and action?

Elsewhere, Acevo tells us that more third sector leaders should be on corporate boards, at the same time advocating that we deliver more of the state's services. This eagerness to prove that we're as good as or better than the statutory or corporate sectors risks obliterating the difference.

This sector is often defined by what it is not, rather than what it is, so it's not surprising that some bodies are indistinguishable from statutory or for-profit organisations. But if charities come to be indistinguishable from the others, what is the point of charity? There are very important differences.

The absence of a return for investors, or of statutory duty, means we have to create our own disciplines based on broad, altruistic intentions.

Many people in the sector are creative, unruly, maverick - which is why they choose to work in it. The management task is often complicated by volunteers, while the low esteem in which money is held as a motivator - similarly formal rules - means there is something very distinctive about our business. Let's celebrate the difference, not obliterate it.

- There was an editing error in last week's column on cancer, which should have said: "It's a disease that disproportionately affects the old, smokers and the less well-off."

Our apologies.

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