Stephen Cook: A challenging week in the world of Acevo

The chief executives body is at a difficult crossroads and faces tough choices ahead, writes Third Sector's contributing editor

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It’s been a heck of a week for the chief executives body Acevo. After a relatively quiet interregnum of six months since the departure of Sir Stephen Bubb, its high-profile chief executive for 15 years, three attention-grabbing things happened in quick succession.

The first was the announcement that Bubb’s successor will be Vicky Browning, currently the director of CharityComms, which she has successfully nurtured and expanded over the past six years (she was also the publisher of Third Sector ten years ago). She’s known to have both people skills and a hard head, and one colleague remarked: "She’s a bloody good manager of the basics." It was difficult to find anyone who thought this wasn’t a good appointment.

The following day came something rather less cheery – publication of Acevo’s report and accounts for 2015/16, which revealed the steepest decline in income since the big hit three years ago, when the grant from the Office for Civil Society was withdrawn. The latest drop to £1.3m was 27 per cent down on the previous year, and it would be hard to sugar-coat figures like that.

The chair’s introduction to the report by Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, didn’t dwell on the balance sheet, pointing out instead said that it was "our most intense media year to date" – was that Bubb’s swansong, perhaps? But Farmer also wrote about "a year of transition" and the start of the formation of a new identity for Acevo.

The third event was the Acevo annual conference yesterday, built around the theme of "passionate professionalism – leading with heart and head." There were good sessions on Brexit, campaigning and innovation, and a rather routine address by the minister, Rob Wilson. But in the lobbies and at lunch a strong subject among the 170 leaders at the conference was, inevitably, the future of Acevo itself.

One strand of discussion was the recent intervention by the outgoing chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Sir Martyn Lewis, who expressed exasperation at inconclusive recent merger talks between the two organisations. Is it finally time for the two outfits to end their uneasy rivalry and come together?

Another theme was Acevo’s strengths and future priorities: should it be primarily a lobbying and influencing organisation, or an efficient provider of membership services? If it wants to do both, does it have the necessary skills and resources? Half a dozen conversations revealed contrasting views and no strong consensus. One leader remarked, however, that if things don't change over the next 18 months, many members might lose heart.

As for Browning, she is keeping her powder dry. One would like to know what her pitch had been at the interviews and why she was preferred to the three others on the shortlist, but she doesn’t want to talk in detail until after she starts at the end of January. She does say, though, that "supporting the members will be my key priority – it’s all about the network!"

All things considered, it seems that Acevo is at a crossroads, and it’s not yet clear which way it’s going to go. Perhaps the most poignant sign of change yesterday was the fact that a name badge for Bubb, always the dominant presence at previous conferences, was still lying uncollected on the reception desk at the end of the afternoon.

Stephen Cook is the contributing editor of Third Sector 

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