Throwing numbers at the public won't change perceptions, says Sir Stuart Etherington

The chief executive of the NCVO tells a Charity Finance Group risk conference that narrowing the gap between perceptions of what charities do and the reality requires more thought

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

The charity sector cannot close the gap between perceptions of what it does and what it actually does by simply releasing more numbers, according to Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Etherington, who was taking part in a panel discussion at a Charity Finance Group risk conference in London yesterday, was asked about the biggest risks facing the sector. He said that many people had perceptions of what charities did that were a long way from the truth, and the sector needed to think hard about what information the public really needed and wanted, and how it could provide it.

"We don't need a crude debate about putting more and more numbers out there," he said. "It's got to be an intelligent debate with the public."

Fellow panel member Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the CFG, had earlier said that the major risks were pensions, transparency and public scrutiny.

Etherington agreed with Bradshaw on the point about public scrutiny. He also told the audience that charities were creating risks for themselves if, as a result of financial pressures, they were no longer innovating or investing in new ideas.

He said that the NCVO had a pot of between £700,000 and £1m and was assessing what to invest it in – an accreditation programme or new benchmarking were among the ideas considered at a recent NCVO meeting. "We're not just sitting on that money; we're looking at ways to use it constructively," he said.

Earlier this week, it emerged that the NCVO planned to spend £50,000 on exploring how to set up a "charity sector newsroom" that would encourage the media to cover stories about charities more frequently and in a more positive way.

The panel also discussed the risks to funding sources, particularly cuts to local authority funding for the sector. The panel members – Bradshaw, Etherington and Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising – all noted that this source of funding was diminishing, but fundraising income remained strong. Charities, they said, needed a range of income sources in order to spread their risks.

Etherington said that local councils divided into two broad camps. "There are two types of local authorities working with the voluntary sector – there are the clever ones and there are the stupid ones," he said. The clever ones realised that investment in the voluntary sector now would pay dividends in the long term, he said, and the stupid ones made indiscriminate cuts.

Asked by Third Sector whether the political colouring of the party in charge of the council helped to determine whether councils chose the clever or the stupid path, Bradshaw and Etherington shook their heads.

Etherington said it was more about whether non-elected staff understood the sector. "It's generally along the lines of the quality of the leadership – the chief executives," he said.

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