Rebecca Cooney: The age of titans is over - thank goodness for that

A more collaborative approach between the major sector bodies is emerging, which will hopefully allow infrastructure bodies to amplify a multiplicity of voices

Five years ago the charity sector’s infrastructure landscape looked very different. Most of the same organisations are still in place now, but back then the scene was dominated by two figures, and the bodies they led. 

Sir Stuart Etherington and Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executives of the NCVO and Acevo respectively, bestrode the charity world like opposing colossuses - the latter known for his outspokenness and sometimes memorable but full-throated media appearances, the former for his faith in public neutrality and behind-the-scenes influence.

In the past few weeks, the leadership of both organisations have been in the headlines, for different reasons. Vicky Browning, who took over the helm of Acevo from Bubb (following a short interim stint from Asheem Singh), announced last week that she will be stepping down in May. 

As is customary for outgoing leaders, the press release announcing Browning’s planned departure celebrated her achievements in the role. She had set out, she said, “to transform the organisation – to grow the membership, restore its reputation and bring financial stability” and she felt she had succeeded, going on to say Acevo had “become a genuinely inspiring, supportive and collaborative community of sector leaders”.

I don't think the subtext of her words is really all that far below the surface.

Meanwhile, the fallout from last year’s revelations about the dire working culture of the NCVO has continued with the news that specific complaints of harassment, victimisation and racial discrimination had been upheld against Etherington’s successor Karl Wilding and Wilding’s deputy Susan Cordingley - but both had been allowed to leave the organisation before the claims were investigated.

In January last year, Third Sector published extracts from a damning EDI report compiled in 2020 by external consultants, which found evidence of “bullying and harassment” on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability happening “with impunity”, leaving members of minority groups feeling “unsafe at work”.

Following further investigation, complaints over specific incidents emerged, including those against Wilding and Cordingley.

It seems to me that Etherington has escaped much of the public debate and condemnation of his former organisation following the leaked EDI report.

But the report was produced less than a year after his departure -  he was in charge for 25 years and I don’t think the horrendous organisational culture it describes developed overnight.

Wilding spent much of the latter part of his 23-year stint at NCVO as Etherington’s heir apparent. Nevertheless, his appointment (after what the NCVO insisted had been a wide-ranging and scrupulous search for a successor) was welcomed by many in the sector, myself included, as the beginning of a new era for the umbrella body.

And in many ways, it was - just not the one we were expecting. 

Today, the infrastructure landscape is marked by discussion of collaboration and partnerships and many more organisations are visible.

As Paul Streets memorably put it on Twitter the other day, “we have moved (blissfully) from a model of who has the biggest balls” to one where the thinking is “let’s bring all our collective and different balls together. Long may it last”.

Much of this, has of course, come about as a result of the pandemic - the existential crisis which threatened to engulf the sector forced infrastructure bodies to open lines of communication and work in tandem, rather than in competition (and in fairness to Wilding, he was in post for the initial months of the pandemic and was therefore part of this transformation).

But the change in attitude to leadership, in my view, has also played a major role. The towering, long-serving figureheads, who were seen to lead not only their own organisation, but the sector too, have gone. 

Yes, there are leaders who are rightly celebrated for the work they do, but none of them dominates the skyline in quite the way that Etherington and Bubb did. And that is no bad thing.

That’s not to say that Etherington and Bubb didn’t make important contributions to the sector - they did, and maybe the figurehead-style leadership had its place at some point in the past. 

But when this type of leadership, which stirs up competition between organisations who ought to be working together, sits alongside the kind of toxicity we saw at NCVO, then nobody is being served - not the organisation’s employees, not the charities and not the people the charities are there to support. 

The collaborative, communicative, cross-organisational style that is emerging is in many ways more true to the sector’s values (or at least, those it aspires to have), and will hopefully allow infrastructure bodies to amplify a multiplicity of voices, both internally and externally.

It hasn’t been an easy process - the pandemic has been painful, and the reckonings which have come as the culture shifts have been difficult for the sector (and neither can be safely said to be finished yet).

But at the beginning of 2022, surveying the scene for charity sector bodies at least, there is reason to be hopeful.

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