OPINION: Sector needs a strong leader

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) conference this week could be a landmark event. Some of the most important questions about the future of the sector are on the agenda.

The conference's theme, Does Charity Matter?, rather implies that the sector has reasons to be lacking in self-confidence. But in fact these are exciting. Recent government reports have done much to elevate the sector's importance.

In light of these opportunities, the real question on everyone's lips is what future could the charity sector have?

You have to hope that someone is working on the answers. The question is who? CAF plays host to such debates but does not purport to provide leadership in answering such questions itself. NCVO is a membership-based umbrella organisation with relatively limited policy capacity. Other organisations such as ACEVO and the Institute of Fundraising offer leadership for discrete parts of the third sector's workforce.

Such a disparate array of bodies may never provide the kind of leadership the sector now requires. There is, more than ever, the need to consider the case for a Confederation of British Voluntary Organisations, a body that is of sufficient size and weight to match the Confederation of British Industry.

Although the idea has been roundly criticised by the existing bodies in the past, there would be some merit in building on the strengths of the sector's representative groups, rather than duplicating effort. And a merger would not be the combination of apples and pears some have described it as. After all, in a former life, CAF was a department within the National Council of Social Service - the predecessor to NCVO.

Whatever the pros and cons of such a proposal, there is a need for a response which is proportionate to the opportunities and challenges now being faced by the sector. Its members will increasingly look to its leaders for guidance as to the direction the sector should take. Charity does matter, but do we have the leadership to show how much it does?

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