When Lord Victor Adebowale was in his late twenties and working for a drug rehabilitation charity, he scrawled across one wall of his flat the words "Voluntary sector ’til I die". Almost 30 years on, it’s a declaration he stands by, although he’d probably phrase it differently these days.
Adebowale has since become one of the most high-profile figures in the charity sector, leading a range of charities including the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint and the social care organisation Turning Point, where he has been chief executive for the past 17 years.
Adebowale says he knew from a young age that he wanted to do "something that mattered" with his life, so, at 16, he sat himself down to work out what that would look like. "It ended up with me thinking my purpose in life was not just to make myself and others rich," he says. "It was to do something that made sense in the world."
The son of Nigerian immigrants, he grew up in Wakefield, West Yorkshire and started his career working in the housing sector. "Housing, clothing food – we were very poor from that point of view, so these things mattered," he says.
He initially worked as a council housing officer, eventually becoming regional director of the Ujima Housing Association. It was at this point that he realised he was more interested in helping people with other issues, such as mental health and alcohol problems, which led him to become director of the Alcohol Recovery Project.
After four years at ARP, Adebowale became chief executive of Centrepoint in 1995. On his very first day at the charity, he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and had to meet Princess Diana to convince her to remain as a patron. "It would have looked pretty bad if she’d left the same day as I started," he says with a laugh. He also had to work out with his chair how the charity would raise the £1m it needed to stay afloat. It was a true baptism of fire, but the charity not only survived but thrived under his leadership.
In 2001, he was appointed to the House of Lords as one of the first "people’s peers", an effort by Tony Blair, Prime Minister at the time, to make the Lords more representative. That same year Adebowale became chief executive of Turning Point. At that time, the organisation employed 924 full-time-equivalent staff and had an annual income of £28m. Under his stewardship, it has grown to 2,982 FTE staff and had an income of £126m in 2017.
The voluntary sector might have changed considerably over the past two decades, but some things have remained frustratingly the same. Lord Adebowale remains one of only a handful of chief executives from a BAME background to lead a major national charity.
He believes the reasons for the lack of diversity in charities are complicated, but "there is an unspoken issue about how people get appointed" and BAME people are competing in a rigged game. Blind applications, recruitment in batches, promoting from within and ensuring at least one BAME applicant gets interviewed could all help to level the playing field, he says.
"But there does need to be some sort of self-reflection on how the sector is actually led," he says.
The sector also needs to stop devaluing leadership. Adebowale is one of the few voices in the sector that have loudly argued for high rates of executive pay in the not-for-profit sector. The sector, he says, needs to "dump the halo", stop apologising and start being honest about what it does.
More broadly, the modern charity sector finds itself in a fight for relevance. When he was 16, Adebowale says, he was driven by a belief that charities were "about the future of what matters to society". The sector has changed society, he says, but adds: "Whether we’ll continue to do so is a different matter."
Organisations such as Shelter and Centrepoint "changed the way we think about the fabric of society" when they were set up in the 1960s, he says, but there are "fewer organisations that have that kind of impact now".
"There’s all sort of reasons for that, but I sometimes wonder about momentum of the sector," Adebowale says. The standard model of the charity has been under attack, he adds, which is why he’s more interested in the social enterprise model.
Turning Point might be a registered charity, he says, but it’s also a social business, operating exclusively on contracts. Instead of the terms "charity sector" and "private sector", he prefers "for dividend" and "not for dividend". The notion that the two should be completely separate is "clearly nonsense", he adds.
Adebowale’s passion for social enterprise led him to take on the role of chair of Social Enterprise UK in early 2017, and now he advocates strongly for more social sector organisations to adopt the social enterprise approach.
"It’s just about different ways in which you measure value and outputs, but they don’t change the necessity to be a business," he says. "If you’re looking after vulnerable people, shouldn’t you strive for the most efficient ways of doing that? And shouldn’t you try to recruit the best talent in the market?"
And it’s the talent he’s worked with that he credits with much of his success throughout his career.
"If you’re the chief executive of something, it’s not you that does it," he says. "It’s the people that work for you. There’s nothing I’ve done on my own without the work of some amazing people."
2017: Not awarded
2016: Sir Stephen Bubb
2015: Not awarded
2014: Not awarded
2012: Dame Mary Marsh
2011: Kevin Curley
2010: Sir Bert Massie
2009: Lord Phillips of Sudbury
2008: Geraldine Peacock
2007: Nicholas Deakin
2006: Dame Elisabeth Hoodless
2005: Luke FitzHerbert