Monday 30 June 2014

Noisy Leadership

Are you a quiet or noisy leader? What works best? I was at one of our ACEVO regional meetings in Oxford last week, and we had a fascinating debate on this in the wake of recent controversies.

A key role for any social leader is 'speaking truth to power'. But how do you do this? There are some CEOs who believe you must never speak out in public and do all your lobbying behind closed doors. They fear that if they are publicly critical they will be cut off from access or 'got at' in some way. 

This is wrong. No politician or senior official will pay you much attention if they think you will never speak out. That would mean they can safely ignore you. They will pay attention if they think you might speak out publicly, and if they think that what they are proposing is going to be criticised in the public domain. We social leaders hold a vital weapon in our hands. The media love us and we are trusted. When a politician or government official is interviewed the public are inclined to be skeptical. When we appear, there is trust in what we say and claim. Ipsos MORI’s trust surveys (like this one usually indicate that around 15-20% of the public trust politicians, while more like 60-70% trust charities.

Being quiet, then, will not achieve what you want. Of course, the power to speak out must be used judiciously. You should be careful to modulate your criticisms with praise when it is due. Always slamming everything just doesn't work. But on occasion you must be noisy.

I'm certainly not regarded as a shrinking violet. On the Oxfam issue I have been very outspoken. Indeed my views featured in opposition to some backbench government MPs on Friday's BBC Radio 4 World at One. But I have tempered this with lots of work with government when there are issues we care about as a sector. I doubt I was asked by David Cameron to write the choice and competition report in the listening exercise because I'm a quiet leader, or to speak with him when he launched the Open Public Services White Paper because I was seen as docile.

An independent and robust civil society must not whisper but make itself heard. That is why we must avoid the temptation to keep quiet over the election period. CEOs and their trustees must determine to speak out when that is needed, and tell people if they feel they are being gagged. Lord Finkelstein, for one, as he said in Parliament last Thursday would like to hear if charities and campaigners feel gagged by the provisions of the Lobbying Act.

This may sometimes get uncomfortable. I didn't exactly enjoy the dirt heaped over me after my robust defence of professional salaries for CEOs or the sarcasm of Daily Mail columnists. But leadership is often uncomfortable. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen - as they say. And good leaders are able to juggle when backdoor diplomacy is best and when it isn't.

There are many leadership styles. As many as there are leaders I suspect. But being noisy has its place!

And on the subject of noisy leadership I guess you could add the recent example of the Prime Minister in Europe. I was interested in the interview with Jeremy Hunt MP on Today this morning. He made the point that "leadership can be lonely" and he is right. Leadership is not always about seeking or getting a consensus. Sometimes a decision needs to be taken that may not be universally popular - as we saw with the row over Junker. That may be a decision you have taken that may not be universally popular with your Board or your staff, and that's a lonely position.

I remember one of the early ACEVO posters which said (over the picture of a mountain) "it’s lonely at the top". That is exactly why an organisation like ACEVO exists; to support and advise CEOs and to provide a peer network that gives that support when difficult decisions have to be taken.

Friday 27 June 2014

World at One and free speech

The debate on charities’ right to speak out lumbers on. It was a hot topic of conversation last night at three receptions I was at, not least the launch of the smart new Third Sector magazine which will now be published monthly.

I was pleased to be able to defend our historic right to campaign on issues of public concern on the BBC’s World at One this afternoon. One of the MPs interviewed is arguing that if charities have contracts for services we should not be allowed to speak out. This would drive a coach and horse through the governments attempts to reform public services, and would undermine good policy making and better legislation. Fundamentally, the whole argument is based on an impossible premise. Charities’ work to help the lives of the beneficiaries is inseparable from their work to speak out on their behalf.

This point was made far more eloquently in the House of Lords yesterday, in a debate on a motion moved by Baroness Scott of Needham Market noting the contribution of the voluntary and community sector. Speaking movingly about sector independence, Lord Judd said:

“I do not think that I am oversimplifying in saying—it was particularly during my time as director of Oxfam that this thought began to crystallise very clearly with me—that advocacy is not something that charities do in addition to their voluntary work; I became convinced that advocacy was an essential and inherent part of the voluntary service.”

And even better, statistics consistently show that the public are on our side too. They want us to speak out. The most revealing statistic here was from Ipsos MORI polling that Ben Page quoted at ACEVO’s Gathering of Social Leaders last month; more people thought we ought to be campaigning to change public policy (32%) than thought we currently are doing so (24%). So in fact we should be expanding our advocacy role rather than merely defending it against those who disagree with what we say.

And we shall carry on doing so. What I find surprising in all this coverage is that these anti-democratic views in fact come from a tiny minority of parliamentarians. The vast majority of MPs and Peers on all sides recognise that our advocacy role is vital to better law-making, and contributes to a vibrant democracy. Long may that last.

Thursday 26 June 2014

The public still trusts charities - but the Commission should pull its socks up

Today the Charity Commission published new research looking at the public’s trust in charities, carried out by Ipsos MORI. It’s more positive than this week’s similar polling from nfpSynergy  In both cases, despite the warning signs, I think it’s important to credit charity leaders, trustees and volunteers for maintaining such high, continued public trust.

The new research found once again that charities are very highly trusted by the general public - only doctors and the police are trusted more. 

It raised important questions over the importance of good financial management by charities - more people picked this out as important to their reputation. It also showed fewer people trust charities to work independently (62%, compared to 68% in 2010).

And perhaps more worryingly, the proportion who would be more confident in a charity providing a public service than another type of service provider fell from 25% in 2012 to 20% this year.

But let us remember that charities are working in the most difficult operating environment for many years, under pressure on all sides from funders, local and national government and from rising frontline demand. All things considered, I think it is surprising that the level of public trust is so resilient. We must not be complacent but it is encouraging all the same. I recall the findings of another Ipsos MORI survey from January this year which pointed not only to high public trust in our sector, but also to the fact that more people thought we ought to be campaigning to change public policy (32%) than thought we currently are doing so (24%). So in fact we should be expanding our advocacy role rather than merely defending it against those who disagree with what we say.

The survey poses tough questions, too, for the Charity Commission itself. They will have new powers and new energy at the top with the appointment of Paula Sussex as their Chief Executive. It will be her job to ensure that the Commission improves its performance, defends our sector’s integrity and avoids oppressive over-regulation. The Commission needs to pull its socks up and become the effective regulator and support that our sector needs - and the public demands. Let’s see what happens...

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Wrong way for Charity Commission.

The Charity Commission's new consultation, released last week, includes a proposal from MPs that will increase the administrative burden on charities and increase what many think is over-regulation in our sector.

In September the Government accepted "in principle" a recommendation from the Public Administration Select Committee that charities' annual returns to the Commission should state how much they spend on campaigning. It said it would first ask charities to take the initiative themselves in being more transparent about their political activities, and then explore with the Commission the possibility for extra information "to be captured and disclosed in a proportionate way through existing processes."

But now the Charity Commission – with its announcement this week of the proposal, subject to consultation, that charities should indeed from next year have to say in their returns how much they spend on campaigning (and how much they receive from government sources) – has ignored this and gone ahead with a blunderbuss approach. What happened to the "first step" and the use of existing processes? Clearly the Commission are not interested in that.

The Commission is pushing ahead with the Select Committee’s recommendation more forcefully than the Cabinet Office envisaged or is desirable.

Looking at the Public Administration Select Committee’s minutes it is clear this recommendation may have stemmed more from the opinions of some of its own members than from the evidence presented to it by witnesses. It goes further even than Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs, hardly the greatest supporter of charity campaigning. He concedes that it is ‘fairly arbitrary’ to distinguish campaigning from other charity activities.

The Committee’s report also seems to confuse ‘campaigning’ and ‘political and communications work’, which suggests that they treat the terms as interchangeable.

Let's be very clear as a sector about what is going on here. There is a clear element in the Commission who believe that we need to 'stick to the knitting'. The fact that the campaigning and advocacy work of charities is inextricably linked to our work at the front line appears to escape them. To take one obvious example, look at RNIB's fantastic work for almost 150 years, both supplying a wide range of services for people with sight loss and agitating for numerous government policies to make their lives better. It is illogical and unnecessary to separate the two functions.

And what is worse is that this intervention into a political debate detracts from the work the Commission should be doing on sector regulation. With Paula Sussex starting as their new Chief Executive next week they have an excellent opportunity for new energy in pursuing this goal.

But for now, perhaps the Commission themselves should stick to the knitting, and avoid clamping down on the historic role and duty of charities to speak truth to power.

Monday 23 June 2014

Art in the Cotswolds

I had a great weekend at a sculpture exhibition set in the wonderful surrounds of Astall Manor, the former Cotswolds home of the Mitfords.

My neighbour in Charlbury, Emma Maiden, was exhibiting in their 'On Form' series. It continued the arty theme of my weekend as I had lunch Friday with an up and coming artist - Tim Patrick - who is going to do a portrait of me and my partner. A frightening thought. Unfortunately I have not yet had a request to be 'hung' in the National Portrait Gallery but surely some day...

And just in case my head was in any danger of expanding after being described by Ed Miliband as "formidable" and by Nick Hurd as an "institution", I discovered I had appeared (yet again) in the improbably named Quentin Letts' column in the Daily Mail. Clearly moved by my attendance at last week's IPPR event, he felt bound to comment how "whenever a think tank puts out a table with custard creams and name badges, springy-heeled Bubblet pops up like a kiddies' conjuror."

Friday 20 June 2014

Bad food and MPs...

Well done to Michael Gove MP for the new guidelines on food in schools, cutting out fries and sugary drinks. High time too, as obesity among kids soars and the rise in cases of diabetes and pre-diabetes is increasing significantly. And what may you ask is our health service doing about it? 

Well, in hospitals, sweet nothing as they say. Walk into most hospitals and the tempting offers on chocs and coke from vending machines and cafes are all around. Why, Guys hospital even has a McDonalds on the premises. And at Tommies you walk in past an array of retail outlets piled to the gunwales with unhealthy food options. It's time hospitals got on message. I realise they are turning a fast buck on these outlets but I thought they were about improving our health! Could Jeremy Hunt take a leaf out of Michael Gove's book on this? And let's face it. Most elderly people in hospital for a long period emerge malnourished - Age UK has run their excellent campaign against malnutrition in hospitals for almost 10 years now. Hospitals just don't get good food, let alone healthy food. End of rant. 

We had a Social Investment Business reception at the House of Commons this week (more sticky buns on offer there; I said no!). We were introducing some of our investees to MPs and we had a good cross-section of Members from all parties, as well as Ministers and their Shadows. Nick Hurd MP gave a great speech and emphasised the point I had made about how social finance is one of those subjects where you do find cross-party consensus. The Big Society Capital started off as a Labour idea, but was taken up enthusiastically by the Conservatives, and David Cameron is a great advocate of social investment. And Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd has been a great champion for our sector. He has a lovely approach to the role which combines an oft laconic style with wit and passion for the sector. He even went so far as to describe me as ‘an institution’. Obviously kind comments by him about me simply reinforce my view he is a perceptive chap.

The event was sponsored by Crispin Blunt MP, a former Prisons Minister and a non-exec on my Social Investment Business Board. His comments on a range of issues make great common sense, as I told him, now that he has been freed from the cares of office! But the fun of this event was in meeting the many charities and social enterprises that have taken loans to promote their ambitions. 

SIB has made over £350m worth of social investment to over 1000 organisations. This makes us the UK's largest social investor. I'm chuffed to be their Chair. And in the spirit of keeping fit I can report I spent an hour in the Brixton gym last night. Needed to after that rather splendid dinner at the Cass Business School on Wednesday.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Ed Miliband talks, Lesley-Anne lectures, Bubb basks.

So just back from the launch of the IPPR Condition of Britain report, at the Rich Mix centre in Bethnal Green. A weighty tome that contains much of interest for the third sector – and for ACEVO and our member charities and social enterprises much involved in pulling together ideas for this report (just as we are pulling together ideas of relevance to the other political parties). It was good to have a wide range of civil society groups represented in the audience – my name was mentioned in a question by a delegate from Unite. The presence of several Labour MPs including Jon Cruddas and Rachel Reeves showed how important IPPR’s work is in Labour’s policy review and plans for government. Ed Miliband gave the keynote introduction. 

I have to admit to being flattered when Ed Miliband, answering the inevitable Bubb question on the need for more devolution of power to charities and social enterprises, described me as “a formidable campaigner on these issues”. He went further to acknowledge that “you and I know that the voluntary sector can make a huge difference when it comes to adding value to public services”. I hope we will see similar sentiments when Labour’s policy review and their manifesto set out their full pitch to our sector! 

And last night I was at Cass Business School for a Lecture by my Chair, the formidable Lesley-Anne Alexander. She spoke eloquently about the work of RNIB and its role leading the UK’s sight loss sector, and also asked whether the UK actually needs 733 blind charities. Lesley-Anne has led 14 mergers and she spoke about the process, the way they preserve brands and how useful that is. Her view, echoing that of Sam Younger is that the UK has to many charities and there should be more barriers to entry. 

And after a heavy weight lecture the Business School laid on a splendid dinner for select guests. It was, as can be imagined, of the standard one would expect from such an institution.

Monday 16 June 2014

That was the week that was!

And a full on week it was. Ranging from a garden Party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Red Cross's 150 years to a stout defence of Oxfam's right to campaign

Its June so the sector "season" is in full swing. It was the Saxton Bampfylde annual reception at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the great and the good (and less so) of the sector were in fine fettle surrounded by the finest sculptures of the renaissance. Good to bump into old pal and former ACEVO Director Ralph Michell and we, probably unwisely, continued the celebrations afterwards. However I had also been to the Brompton Oratory for Latin Mass beforehand, so can be forgiven.

Thursday was the annual Civil Society Charity Awards; always a great time to catch up with colleague CEOs. Much talk of the attack on Oxfam and a particularly viscous piece in the Mail by Col Max Hastings fulminating about charity campaigning. A rather useful reminder that we are getting things right.  And letters in the Times today from me and from others demonstrate our sector is firm in defence of our right to campaign.

And mentioning the Palace Garden Party, it was nice to see in the Birthday Honours a particular Honour for my youngest ACEVO member Gary Buxton.

My ACEVO Director Jenny Berry tells me she was with Gary Buxton - CEO of Young Advisors (he founded it) Friday evening - on a friend's canal barge for drinks. Then at midnight he announced he'd been awarded an MBE, he was excited as you would expect- as was his partner.

Gary also thanked Jenny for ACEVO’s support and help over the past few years. He joined ACEVO the week we started in the north and has been active with us ever since.

One of his senior team, Ed Moss, who is also an ACEVO Associate member (and again one of our youngest members) was awarded an ACEVO Fellowship last year as an outstanding emerging leader.

Great organisation, great leaders and one to watch.

And finally, the roses are in full swing in Charlbury. Here is a picture from my cottage.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Rock on, Oxfam!

So, an MP has referred the recent rather brilliant Oxfam poverty advert, a "Perfect Storm" to the Charity commission. I trust the Commission will be sending said MP away with a flea in his ear. It is essential that the commission is clear on the right of charities to campaign, and makes this clear in no uncertain terms.

Oxfam's job is to campaign against poverty. That is what it was set up to do. That is its mission.

It is clear that we have seen a rise in poverty in the UK. We have seen the effects of the recession hit hardest amongst the most vulnerable. What would be shocking ( and a cause of complaint to the Commission) would be if Oxfam were not campaigning on poverty. And Oxfam have typically done so in a hard hitting way. Well done to Mark Goldring their CEO. It was good to do a slot on my local radio station,BBC Radio Oxford, earlier today praising the charity campaign. As I said, Oxfam are in good company: Pope Francis, the Archbishop and Cardinal Nichols have all made clear their views on the need to fight poverty. They sometimes get these cries about being political yet they are doing their job as Church Leaders.

Charities are nothing if they are not a voice for the vulnerable. The relief of poverty is about doing good works ; like the food banks , but also campaigning about the causes of poverty. It a massive task and sometimes we need to be edgy and noisy to get our message across.

I'm afraid there are some in Parliament who seem to have a somewhat regressive view of our role. Like Victorian children they think we should be seen but not heard.

But we in our sector must recognise that the right of charities to campaign is under threat. This is not just about the wretched Lobbying Act. its about a climate that would deny our duty to campaign. We must therefore rally round Oxfam and make clear that we stand behind them on this issue. And I will urge my members not to be put off running hard hitting campaigns and being edgy. The last thing we need is self censorship.

I am writing to the Chair of the Charity Commission to make clear the sector's view on this matter and how we will expect a robust defence of our traditional role. I hope others will do the same.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Too much hype; not enough action! Where now social investment?

The idea of social loans has reached an interesting stage. When I took on the role of the Chair of the Adventure Capital Fund , founded 10 years ago , the idea of loans for third sector bodies was anathema. The general  attitude was indifference, yet some organisations did "get it" and took advantage of loans to expand their activities. Interestingly our mission was to support community enterprise- so starting with smaller organisations, not larger or national charities. We wanted to show that loans could work at local level. And our record shows that it can; indeed we are now the biggest social investor in the UK in terms of the numbers of loans we have made.

Making unsecured loans was definitely a minority cause back then. "It will never catch on" they said.

But it did. Indeed it has now become highly fashionable and lauded in high places. The danger we now face is there is too much hype and not enough action, aided and abetted by folk who have now discovered shiny new toys to play with. So we hear about social impact bonds,  equity deals and other interesting ways in which the sector is to be enticed. Some of these have their place but not at the expense of the core product.

Meanwhile what the sector really wants is simple, straightforward unsecured loans. The Social Investment Business (group parent of ACF ) regularly asks its investees if they have plans that need more lending. The demand is the ground is quite staggering but there is little supply. This is the issue that needs addressing.

As I said at the ACEVO Gathering of Social Leaders, the coalition government made a mistake when they abolished the future ; the Future Jobs Fund and Futurebuilders. FBE has proved a great success. It stimulated loans that have encouraged the sector to deliver more public services. These loans have enabled more delivery by charities and social enterprises. There is a very low default rate on these loans and already £50m has been repaid.

What we need is less hype on social impact bonds and the like ( Peterborough is a sad example ) and more straightforward loans to encourage and fund the ambitions of our sector to grow. This is what Big Society Capital might look at. This is where the HMT should put to use LIBOR money and other discrete sources of income such as money from the proceeds of crime.

As Civil Society magazine pointed out recently ACF was set up with £4m from the Home Office proceeds of crime. We now need a big push by Government again to put money into loans for the sector. They work. And that's where the action is.

Monday 9 June 2014

Reds under the bed?

Those of us who are aged and wise will remember the time when there was much fuss and bother about infiltration by communists or Trotskyites into cultural and state institutions. Fortunately we avoided the paranoia of the McCarthy hearings in the United States.

I was reminded of this with the current palaver over “Trojan Horse schools" and Islamic extremism. Interesting how this story had developed, though not in a terribly helpful way. Suffice to say that the reports today have not uncovered an extremist plot even though they do raise issues that need to be addressed in those 5 schools.

What is disturbing about this whole story is the damage it may do to community relations in Birmingham, and indeed elsewhere. Is it not odd that the reports talk about “cultural isolation" in a way I suspect we would not find in reports about majority white, Christian schools in rural areas? Why, then, are schools that are in predominantly Muslim communities singled out?

Clearly the teaching of respect for varying faiths and practises should be at the bedrock of teaching in all schools, whatever their local community's faith.
We live in an increasingly multicultural country. The current debate slips too easily into assumptions that the Muslim community is prone to violent extremism and terrorism. Such attitudes could indeed foster the very isolationism that is supposed to be a problem.

The idea behind free schools and academies was about empowering parents and communities. Encouraging parents to become more involved as Governors, indeed to take over schools themselves and “free" them from council control.

Ironic then that three of the schools now under special measures are academies. One was only recently singled out for its outstanding academic performance. If I was a Governor in a Muslim school I might now be thinking it’s not worth the effort.

Building strong communities and giving greater power to citizens is core to better community relations between faiths and ethnic communities. It’s what many charities and my members do as core to their job. We need more volunteers and charity activists from Muslim communities, not less. Let's not drive a wedge between faith communities. That would indeed secure the “cultural isolation" that today's reports highlight as a supposed problem.