John Tizard is no stranger to Navca. The local infrastructure charity’s new chair previously spent a total of almost eight years as a trustee and an adviser before taking up his latest role, meaning that he comes with a well-developed list of priorities.
Number one on his list is a desire for Navca to become more proactive and outspoken, and to enable its 200 or so members of mainly councils for voluntary service to do likewise. "Not just on issues that affect us as organisations, important as those are, but also issues such as social conditions," he says, sitting in a quiet corner of the café at the British Film Institute in London.
"The sector should be speaking up much more loudly on issues such as universal credit, the rise of inequality, the rise in poverty, the cause of the impoverished, the cause of the disadvantaged, the cause of creating greater equality – these subjects need to be voiced by the voluntary sector."
Tizard has had a varied career that included 20 years at the disability charity Scope and 10 years at the business outsourcing company Capita. He also served for 18 years as a Labour councillor. He believes the voluntary sector has been on the back foot of late.
"It has been conditioned by, bruised by and sometimes lost some of its confidence because of attacks from the mainstream media and politicians," he says.
Some in the voluntary sector have used the lobbying act as a smokescreen not to speak out on certain issues, he says, but he believes the act should not keep organisations silent. "The lobbying act is wrong in principle, but it shouldn’t be an excuse not to act," he says.
At the forefront
Tizard says the voluntary sector has always been at the forefront of social reform, citing the example of ending the exploitation of children in factories.
"All the way through history, a lot of social change has come because civil society, the voluntary community sector, local social action and national social action, has combined to influence and shape political action to get change," he says.
"I’m confident we can restore that, and I think we are seeing signs of that already."
The charity Tizard now oversees has had its fair share of difficulties in recent years. Its income tumbled from £2.6m in 2012/13 to about £200,000 in 2017/18, largely as funding pots from various parts of government dried up. At times it looked as if Navca might well go under.
But at its recent annual conference, the charity said it was on course to record a balanced budget of about £400,000 in the current financial year after three years of spending significantly outstripping its income.
Tizard pays tribute to the work done by his predecessor, Caroline Schwaller, to restructure the charity and says Navca is now "well placed to develop into an exemplar national membership infrastructure organisation for the sector".
Now it’s back on a more even financial keel, Tizard says the charity needs to become more responsive to its members. "I want to look at the relationship between members and the organisation, and for the board and staff team to be more accountable to the membership, to become closer to the membership and engage the membership much more in the work we do," he says.
During his time as a Labour councillor, Tizard served as a joint leader of the now abolished Bedfordshire County Council. He says he wants to persuade more councils to reinstate grants for local infrastructure bodies. Many councils have in recent years offered contracts, rather than grants, to Navca’s members as they’ve struggled to cope with cuts to local authority budgets. But Tizard says some councils are successfully giving grants to support the work of their local infrastructure organisations, and insists others can be talked into following suit.
"What we’ve got to argue is that competitive tendering is inappropriate for most voluntary sector services, but particularly so for local infrastructure," he says.
"We need to get back to grant aid and to persuade local authorities on this. Having been a local authority leader, that’s one of the things I hope I can bring."
He says the sector should look to examples where councils are working well with the local voluntary sector.
"I was in Sefton in Liverpool recently, where they have very good relations with the local authority and significant funding, not as a contract as far as I am aware," he says. "There are other examples of where it’s working well, and if it’s working in one place why can’t it in another?"
Tizard wasn’t everyone’s first choice to be Navca chair. Rita Chadha, chair of Barking & Dagenham Council for Voluntary Service and an Asian woman, also stood for election and was narrowly pipped to the post. Many would have liked an Asian woman to have secured the role given the lack of diversity at the top of the sector.
Tizard believes he was right to stand for election, arguing he has the skills to take the organisation forward. Equally, he is aware of the need for the organisation to do more to help improve diversity in the sector. He says Navca’s forthcoming governance review will look at how the organisation can reach out to more people from different backgrounds.
After all the upheaval at Navca in recent years, it would be natural to wonder whether a merger with another umbrella body, such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, could be in the pipeline.
In 2012, the charity began merger discussions with the now defunct community support charity Community Matters, only for these to be abandoned some months later over concerns about the potential pensions deficit.
Tizard says he sees no such move in its future. "I’m confident Navca has a future as an independent organisation and we have a distinct voice," he says.
"There’s a distinctive role for organisations such as Navca, so I foresee alliances, partnerships and collaboration rather than merger."