'What's more dangerous than being an irritation is being an irrelevance'

Vicky Browning has had to contend with falling income and a difficult political environment during her first year as chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo. But she won't be shying away from the battles ahead

Vicky Browning
Vicky Browning

A quiet revolution has been taking place over the past year in a corner of the north London offices of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. But this is not an exercise led by Sir Stuart Etherington and his team; rather, it has been happening at one of the NCVO's tenants, the charity leaders body Acevo.

The charity has been undergoing something of refit since Vicky Browning took over as chief executive in January last year, succeeding Sir Stephen Bubb, who left in June 2016 to run the leadership and governance initiative the Charity Futures programme.

From an outsider's perspective, Browning's version of Acevo has so far been considerably more restrained than under Bubb's leadership. During his 15 years in charge, Bubb forged a reputation for robust statements and taking government to task. His style alienated some charity chief executives, but also put Acevo on the political map in a way that it had never been.

In recent years, though, the organisation has found the going tougher. As various pots of government funding have ended and not been replaced, Acevo's income has dropped from £3.2m in 2010/11 to £1.1m in 2016/17. Its staffing levels have fallen from 33 full-time equivalents in 2010 to 10 today.

Sitting in a small meeting room in one corner of Acevo's modest office, Browning says she has spent the bulk of her first year meeting charity chief executives and asking what they want Acevo to concentrate on.

Under her leadership, the body's regular statements on various aspects of government policy are gone. "When I came in, it didn't feel as if there was a real coherent strategy behind the policy pronouncements that we made," says Browning.

"There was a hangover from the days of being a 30 or 40-person organisation. There was a sense that whatever was out there we should have a view on it, and we should have the first view and the loudest view. I thought that wasn't always terribly helpful, and we didn't have the resources to do it."

Instead, Browning's organisation came up with five "policy pillars" - areas that it thought could have most impact for its members: regulation, commissioning, Brexit, campaigning, and diversity and equality.

Browning joined Acevo from the charity communications body CharityComms, where she had been director since 2010. She says she was intrigued by the prospect of joining one of the most influential organisations in the charity sector.

"Acevo was an organisation with a really strong history and brand, and a real record in influencing, but it had drifted and lost its way a bit," says Browning. "I could see that it was declining financially. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to reinvigorate an established brand."

The financial decline Browning mentions is demonstrated in the charity's most recent set of accounts, which show it made a loss of £138,000 on its income of £1.1m in the year to March 2017.

Browning is frustrated by the figures, but points out that they relate mainly to the period before she joined at the end of January 2017. However, she is pleased by a surge in the number of people rejoining as members. "Membership has been in decline for years, but we stabilised that in the first six months and now we are getting net growth," she says.

New values

In addition to examining the policy areas that Acevo should focus on, Browning has also overhauled its values. This, she says, has involved reducing them from 17 to just four: member-driven, forward-looking, connected and vibrant.

She says a fresh focus on the members has resulted in more chief executives renewing their memberships. The renewal rate has risen from about 65 per cent to about 80 per cent, although understandably she would like 100 per cent. This is a major indicator of whether a membership organisation is doing what members want, says Browning. "I don't feel we are totally sorted in terms of what our members want from us," she says. "But everything we are hearing is that they like the direction of travel. If only six out of 10 are renewing, there's something you're not doing right. Renewal rate is a huge indicator of what you're doing and whether it's what people want."

But she says "everything's just a work in progress" and the organisation is still working to perfect what it is doing. "With any membership organisation, there's never a point at which you say 'that's it, we've got it now', because your members are changing all the time, so you have to change."

Another area in which the charity sector has experienced change is in its relationship with government. She says charities are receiving conflicting messages from those in power, which is a subject of concern for her. "First, you have Theresa May delivering a speech at the Charity Commission about the 'shared society' and the emphasis that's been put on mental health - and all that is great," she says.

The appointment last year of Charlotte Lawson as a special adviser leading on the development of government relations with the voluntary sector was also a positive move, according to Browning, but then Lawson was not reappointed after the general election in June and nobody else has been given the role.

Short shrift

The sector then received short shrift from the government over the recommendations made by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts for amendments to the highly unpopular lobbying act.

Browning says she was part of a group of voluntary sector people who attended a meeting at which it was confirmed that the government was not going to implement the amendments put forward to soften the act. The attitude coming from government at the meeting was akin to "talk to the hand", Browning says.

All of this makes her concerned that the sector is losing its political relevance and is not receiving sufficient attention on the policy front. But she believes it is important that charities continue to speak out, even if it risks frosty relations with government: "I think much more dangerous than being an irritation is being an irrelevance. In fact, I think we're losing salience. We're just not registering, and I do think that is worrying.

"It feels like we're at a point where we're just not on the radar, and that is something that Acevo, the NCVO, all of us, need to be concerned about."

But Browning is encouraged by the appointment of Tracey Crouch as the Minister for Civil Society. Browning says Crouch, who has been given the charities role in addition to her existing responsibilities as sports minister, appears to show more interest in the sector than "we've had in a little while", directing a gentle dig at Rob Wilson, the previous minister. Wilson spent almost three years in the role before losing his Reading East seat at the last election, but he was not universally popular.

Strategy

Browning says she was pleased by Crouch's announcement at the end of 2017 that she planned to develop a strategy for the voluntary sector. "Tracey seems genuinely committed to the sector and willing to listen and work in partnership with us," says Browning. "In fact, she's explicitly said that partnerships will be a key theme of the strategy. The strategy she produced for the sports sector seems to have been well received and has had an impact, so I hope she'll do the same for civil society."

Browning says the sector is also hearing more from Steve Reed, the shadow charities minister, which she says starts to make her feel that there is "potentially more positive mood music from the political arena".

I've always had this horror of duplication and pointless competition, so I will work with others as much as I can"

Vicky Browning

She believes the sector could be a valuable resource for politicians over the coming months and years, and they would be wise to consider the expertise charities and community groups have.

"The Brexit vote showed the split in our society and the fact that there's a whole chunk of the country that feels left out or ignored," she says. "I do genuinely think that the third sector has a huge role to play in addressing that. It's the bit that we have to persuade MPs about. They've got a massive asset they should be tapping into."

Another relationship that Browning has spent some time working on is the one that exists between Acevo and the NCVO.

Under Bubb's leadership, Acevo often clashed with the NCVO, although relations between the two organisations did improve during his later years in charge.

She says it is difficult for her to comment on the relationship between the two sides in days gone by, "but everybody knows what it was like".

"I think part of the problem was that there wasn't a clear distinction between the two organisations," she says. "For whatever reason - and I think quite a lot of it was about personality - there was a sense of competition.

"I don't think that is a necessary or helpful line to take. I don't see us as competing with the NCVO. But I do think that, as an organisation, we hadn't properly defined what our unique selling point was - why were we different.

"There was a lot of grey area between us, so one of my things was to focus on what makes Acevo distinct and what can we offer that the NCVO doesn't."

Browning says that, for all the closer working between the two organisations, one subject that is not on the agenda is a merger between the two.

'Not a good fit'

Martyn Lewis, the former chair of the NCVO, said in his departure speech in 2016 that he had attempted to broker merger talks between the two organisations, only to be frustrated by Acevo's lack of cooperation - a description of events that the leaders body said at the time it did not recognise. But Browning says that, though she is keen on more collaboration and joint working, the two organisations are not a good fit for a merger.

"We're for individuals and we look after them as individuals, whereas the NCVO is for organisations," she says. "If I use a business analogy, we're like the Institute of Directors and they are the Confederation of British Industry. I don't hear people saying the IoD and the CBI should merge, because they do very different things."

Equally, she says, people in the sector are not suggesting the Charity Finance Group or the Institute of Fundraising should merge with the NCVO.

"There's certainly no sense at the moment that we need to do any formal merging, but I would like closer working and collaboration," Browning says.

"I still have a job to do to really consolidate Acevo, but ever since I've been in the sector I've always had this horror of duplication and pointless competition, so I will work with other people as much as I can. Leadership can't be about ego, and I think that applies within the umbrella bodies as much as in the wider sector."

This is likely to be manifest in more combined work on policy and issues that affect the sector, because it would be more helpful if the major bodies approached issues in a more coherent manner, says Browning.

"The NCVO and Acevo won't always agree on everything, but it's more likely to manifest itself as a difference in tone and approach," she says.

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