Tuesday 23 December 2014

Merry Christmas

In 1941, Walt Disney wrote “One reason the Christmas season appeals to me is that it makes us suspend business-as-usual routines and lets our mind soar for a while.  It is a time when the imagination is more sprightly than at other periods of the year; Christmas seems to release even the most solemn of us from the Scrooge realism that occasionally besets all of us”. 

I know from some of my CEO colleagues that the scrooge mentality is already stalking the Council corridors in some parts, with big cuts to third sector funding on the way and more challenges to philanthropy and giving. But there are always opportunities.  That is why I have always been such a passionate advocate of more third sector service delivery.

How stupid it is that the NHS are not looking for a major push by the voluntary sector to help out with demand on A+E. We all know older people stay in hospital too long and we know many A+E visits are preventable with intervention at home. We know many older people get admitted to hospital not because of a medical condition but because of social conditions or simply lack of transport to get them home. The third sector should be mobilised to support the NHS. But as usual the system seems incapable of thinking more broadly about how to use us to solve problems. Still, one day they will get it! In the meantime I continue to bang the drum, and key ACEVO members make the case through their everyday work with older people at home and in the community.

2015 will be soon upon us. In the meantime its good to relax and enjoy the peace and goodwill of Christmas. I'm blogging from a peaceful Charlbury where the hound is currently snoozing in front of the log fire.

Have a very Merry Christmas. 

Saturday 20 December 2014

Charity Commission and Oxfam

The Charity Commission have issued their long-awaited opinion on Oxfam. Two issues were investigated: Oxfam's work in Palestine, and their ‘Perfect Storm’ Twitter campaign about poverty in the UK.

On the first point, Oxfam were exonerated completely. On the latter, I think, things got silly. The Commission concluded that “the tweet could have affected the views of those who received it and could be misconstrued by some as party political campaigning”.

Clearly, charities must stick to the rules. The public trust and value charities as independent organisations. The Charity Commission issues clear guidelines - its document ‘CC9’. They say charities may campaign politically, so long as they are not party political. This can be demonstrated by good governance and a transparent approach to decision making. So far, so good.

But there’s a serious problem when regulators start trying to rein in Twitter. 140 characters isn’t usually enough to make your meaning totally clear, even if there’s a picture attached. Hostages to fortune are commonplace. You have only to look at Emily Thornberry MP’s recent fate to see what harm can result. 

In most such controversies on Twitter, much of the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It’s anachronistic and unworkable for a regulator to control every Tweet people make. We’ve been here before when the Electoral Commission suggested the Lobbying Act should apply to Twitter, earlier in the Autumn.

The Charity Commission’s comments on Oxfam simply won’t work on a practical level. It is all very well to argue, as they do, that Tweets need proper context. But let’s be realistic about what is possible in our world of instant messaging. Its impact is quick and charities are rightly seizing this new medium as a way to reach supporters, spread their messages and carry out campaigns - to ignore it would be to neglect their duty. Its nature means we can’t “ensure there is written authorisation and sign-off procedures”, as the Commission propose. Twitter is too quick and non-hierarchical for that to work.

So what lessons for the future? It’s increasingly clear that 20th-century regulation and 21st-century campaigning very often don’t match. The best campaigning is often provocative and derives its power from shocking people from their complacency. This drives social change, and draws attention to charities’ work for their beneficiaries. It would be irresponsible to try to smother it, under a new layer of bureaucracy. As ACEVO’s General Election Manifesto says, we need a ‘free society’ where social organisations are free to speak truth to power.

The General Election ‘long campaign' started yesterday and it’s a good time to debate the future of our ‘Free Society’. ACEVO’s Commission on Civil Society Regulation, chaired by lawyer Lord Low of Dalston, will consider how government can help secure charities’ and voluntary organisations’ place in the 21st century through good regulation. It’ll report in early March, and advise charities and government on a new generation of legal oversight.

But in the immediate future, let’s be robust in defending charities’ right to speak out. They have a duty to follow their mission. That may mean being ‘political’. They aren’t being ‘partisan’, even if politicians disagree with them and accuse them of taking sides.

I’m tempted to ask what the general public would rather see. On the one hand, a lively online democracy with charities campaigning to draw attention to neglected causes, bringing to bear the weight of their expertise and evidence-gathering. And on the other, a heavily-policed, hierarchically-controlled Twitter space, with all institutional voices too timid to speak their minds for fear of prosecution. We already have the former, and in my mind it works very well. Charities are an independent, non-party, political force, unafraid to speak the truth to power. Long may that last.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Leadership of Biblical proportions!

Last night's Carols at the Royal Albert Hall proved as spectacular as always. Trumpets. A crowd of thousands and a brilliant choir and orchestra.

With Christmas holidays almost here, charity leaders and our organisations are thinking about 2015. Whichever way you view it, it's going to be a specially eventful year. Events in Russia this week might prove even more dramatic that what a British General Election can offer, but we're facing our own profound disruption and uncertainty in politics at home. Two elections perhaps. And all alongside further funding cuts that guarantee a hard time for the third sector - our country's other social safety net. But despite the many problems for charity leaders, there are perhaps some opportunities to hit the 'reset button' on our relationships across Westminster.

If these times are to be turned into an opportunity that will demand great leadership. Of biblical 
proportions, one might say.

So I was grateful for some wise words from that wondeful ACEVO member Paul Martin, who leads the Lesbian and Gay Foundation in Manchester. Thought I'd share them with you!

  • Leaders understand their role is to create the time and space for good people to do great things
  • Leaders encourage contributions from everyone and realise; every day, front-line staff wrestle with organisational boundaries, absurdities, approvals, duplication, pomposity, clunky systems, bureaucracy and waste. They know more than you do.
  • Leaders keep their group's energy level high; celebrate every success, no matter how minor. Organisational dynamicists talk of the aggregation of minor gains. Leaders know that means; every little helps.
  • Leaders set clear objectives that everyone can recognise and be part of.
  • Leaders are always doing an up-sum; 'this is where I think we are... what do you think?'
  • Leaders can step back and become detached in times of difficulty.
  • Leaders encourage openness; 'let's put all our cards on the table'.
  • Leaders are loyal to their people no matter what goes wrong; the trick is to encourage openness; know about it, fix it and learn from it.
  • Leaders recognise success and failure is only an expression of what works and what doesn't.
  • Leaders recruit people who are better than them, step back and take the credit. They know the alternative is to recruit the rest and step forward and take the blame.

The leader's role is about Imagination not Administration, Vision not Supervision. 

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Good with Money and Carols

Well, another Carol Concert, this time at the House of St Barnabas, that wonderful charity in Soho which helps young people into training and jobs. The House is an elegant Soho Georgian townhouse which used to provide hostel accommodation for young girls. It was established in the 19th century by a religious order, so it comes complete with Chapel; an ideal place for a carol concert. Sandra Schembri, the CEO, is a valued ACEVO member and I like to show support. The house had to stop providing hostel accommodation because it became unsuitable, so Sandra came up with the great idea of turning the House in to a social leaders club, for which it is eminently suitable. It provides both  training and job placement for the young people they help. The Club generates revenue to support the charity. A brilliant place. Worth joining! 

Afterwards a lovely Christmas dinner at L'Escargot with my partner. 

Yesterday also saw the launch of the final report of the ACEVO Commission on Ethical and Responsible Investment and the role of charities. It’s a comprehensive guide for charity leaders, to help them ensure any reserves are invested in line with their organisations' missions. Last December's BBC Panorama programme showed the potential risks for charity leaders and trustees who delegate control over their investment portfolios. We had a lively debate to launch the report, with contributions from Investment managers, the Shadow Minister Chi Onwurah MP, chair of the ACEVO Commission Martin Clarke, and Catherine Howarth of ShareAction. As I wrote to ACEVO members yesterday, the report contains a wealth of information and I hope all charity leaders will read it and pass it on to their boards!

And so tonight, inevitably, off to another Carol Concert. This time its the annual Bubb Clan gathering at the Royal Albert Hall where the Royal Choral Society are performing in a marvellous show of carols and readings, complete with trumpeters from The Guards Brigade. My sister Lucy is in the RCS and will be singing; so family all there to show support. And have jolly Christmas fun! And that's the last Carols for a while, till the beautiful 9 Lessons and Carols in the small Norman Church in Shorthampton on Sunday.

Friday 12 December 2014

Christmas carols and faith charities

I had 2 possibly competing events Wednesday - but they were united in one theme: the value and role of charity.

In the morning I was at a breakfast meeting ACEVO had organised for the leaders of Muslim charities. Many of our CEO colleagues talked about the challenges they face, in their work, dealing with the hostile environment of islamophobia. It was good to see Dianne Abbott MP who talked about the problems Islamic faith charities are facing in Hackney. We also had two senior staff from the Charity Commission, who made a really helpful contribution to the discussion. But the Commission still have many questions to answer, as I said at my appearance before the joint Commons and Lords Committee on the draft Protection of Charities Bill on Tuesday.

Then in the evening it was off to a carol concert at St Stephen's Walbrook, in the City. Organised by the London Air Ambulance, that great charity, and starring that great Prelate, Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London. Graham Hodgkin, the charity's CEO (and an ACEVO member), told me afterwards that the Bishop had remarked, "ah , I see you have The Bubb here". Fame indeed when one becomes a noun with a definite article! And the carol "Good King Wenceslas" was rather apposite in the wake of the Parliamentary report on hunger in the UK. After all, the carol is all about feeding the homeless and poor - the good King was a walking food bank. Many great points in this report, which was powerfully advocated by His Grace of Canterbury.

As politicians contemplate yet more spending cuts, we need to ensure the vital work that charities like the food banks perform is not harmed. I fear it will be. The feedback from ACEVO's CEO members at our regional forums is worrying in this regard.

We are constantly hearing yet more disturbing news from our members, at the moment, about cuts to services from local authorities. Leeds CC and Rotherham are cutting by £40m next year. These have been confirmed as all external cuts, since these authorities have already made all the cuts they can internally. It is apparent that the first services to go will be those up for renewal next year. This may be the simplest course of action, but it will badly hurt front line services. I heard from one ACEVO member that they will have £3.8 million of contracts cut next year. That's equivalent to one third of their income, and they cannot get the local authority to talk with them about this. As well as the impact to beneficiaries, this also affects the core of the charity and other services they provide. As they said, there's 'a huge car crash about to happen'.

We heard similar examples from members in Manchester forum this week. It's disturbing.

This will be a major debate on spending cuts in the next few months before the election. Despite the insistence of some - like UKIP and the Lib Dems - that there's little difference between Labour and Tories, we're starting to get more clarity about their different fiscal approaches. In all this coming debate, the charity voice must be heard. We can't just rely on the random generosity of  "good king Wenceslas" and his modern ilk.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Where will the cuts fall?

Yesterday’s Autumn Statement has completely dominated today’s news. Not a surprise.

But what is unclear about yesterday's Statement from the Chancellor is where cuts will be made in public spending after 2015. This morning’s FT makes clear that “renewed activity is failing to fill the Treasury’s coffers.” The situation is dismal: we have a surprising shortfall in future tax revenues, and the chancellor still aims to cut down the size of the public sector.

So cuts will continue, with few big tax rises in the offing. The BBC's head of statistics Anthony Reuben said public spending as a proportion of GDP would fall to its lowest level since the 1930s. Office for Budget Responsibility chairman Robert Chote called it a “very sharp squeeze”, of which around 60% is forecast to come in the next Parliament.

These cuts will have a profound effect on society, particularly the most vulnerable like the unemployed and people with disabilities. That in turn puts pressure on the third sector.

So what does this mean for us?  There are 2 major effects. First, with spending protected in health and schools the brunt will fall on welfare and local councils. This will inevitably mean further cuts to support for charities, especially at local level. It also means further strains on the welfare system , with charities having to pick up the pieces. Increasingly, as ACEVO points out in our recently published ‘Free Society’ Manifesto, our sector has become ‘the other safety net’ for people and communities. But you can't  increase your support for the vulnerable with less money. The system is already creaking and in desperate need of funding, as food banks and many disability charities will tell you.

We urgently need to know exactly where cuts will fall, and how the Government plans to protect the third sector. It’s not enough to delay the details until closer to the election, or even after next May. For now, we know the third sector will always be there in support and in defence of society’s most vulnerable. But without a modicum of political support, this situation cannot last for ever.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

George Osborne bearing gifts?

Well, there not much about the Autumn Statement that had not already been announced. Underlying the Statement is the fact that over the next Parliament we face more massive retrenchment of public spending, against a darkening fundraising environment. Yes there are opportunities, but the money continues to be tight. And getting tighter.

The Chancellor has made some promising noises but he is guilty of one fatal error. He neglects the vital role of the third sector to building a healthy society and economy. His announcements on national infrastructure said nothing about local, community or third sector infrastructure. In his drive for a budget surplus, we are concerned that he will jeopardise already-decimated local services further. This will harm not only our nation’s sense of togetherness but our economic productivity as well.

As we stated in our 2015 General Election Manifesto, ‘Free Society’, charities are the nation’s ‘other social safety net’. The next government must recognise us as key allies in reform, not as an afterthought.

m delighted with the VAT announcement. I have been arguing this case for yonks, along with ACEVOs membership and much of the rest of the sector, so we welcome the promise to refund VAT on hospices, search and rescue and air ambulance organisations. We argued for this in our submissions to the Department of Health, and it is good to see the Chancellor is listening. If the Government is serious about giving us the NHS we deserve, it has to offer patients the choice of being looked after in their community, whatever stage of life they are at.

m also pleased that the Chancellor agrees that fines from crooked banks should continue to go to society. ACEVO articulated that principle in our ‘Free Society’ manifesto and we are pleased that the Chancellor agrees. We believe he should go further; the shame to our nation caused by these fraudulent acts should be washed away with good.

Charities give so much to the high street each and every day. The Government needs to support the work they do to make our public spaces that much more giving and caring. Charity leaders must play a central part of this review. You can be sure I will be robust in making this case as this debate unfolds. We will not allow changes in business rates to affect the charity shop. I
m a fan. They touch our reliefs at their peril!  

Tuesday 2 December 2014


After the frenzy, the scuffles and injuries of ‘Black Friday’, a more benign American import hits today: ‘Giving Tuesday’. It's is an antidote to the excesses of pre-Christmas consumerism. It encourages people, charities and businesses to give time and money to help others, or to speak out for a good cause. ‎A chance to show the real spirit of Christmas - not shopping but giving.

The Charities Aid Foundation says we’re the sixth most generous country in the world. Our magnificent charitable tradition is one of our greatest unsung exports to the world. And CAF are to be congratulated for bringing this tradition here to the UK. ACEVO is proud to be one of the founding partners. 

Giving Tuesday was created in 2012 to help promote charities and their work. The idea is spreading around the world – to countries as far apart as Canada, Australia, Mexico, Israel and Singapore. In the UK more than 750 businesses, charities and organisations have signed up as partners. 

The day is an opportunity to make a donation, volunteer or join a charity campaign for a better world. People are even giving blood, or donating belongings to their local charity shop. Remember especially my favourites; Helen and Douglas  House Hospice!  Charity supporters are taking to Twitter to post #unselfie pictures using the #GivingTuesday hashtag to show support for their favourite causes.

Volunteering has for centuries been at the heart of Britain’s free society. It has sustained us through different ages of change. In the nineteenth century voluntary action abolished the slave trade and gave us such institutions as the NSPCC and the RSPCA.

Today, giving and volunteering support vital services like St John Ambulance, our lifeboats and our air ambulances.In the last few months the Disasters Emergency Committee has depended on the public’s generosity to combat Ebola. This Christmas, Crisis are looking for 9,000 volunteers to support  residential centres over 9 days, that help rough sleepers in need. Volunteering for charities like Crisis will help ensure the season of goodwill extends some of our society’s most vulnerable.

 ACEVO, brings together the leaders of some of our biggest charities and social enterprises. We are using the season to campaign for improvements to a national institution: the NHS. Well-led, professionally run charities and social enterprises are vital to relieving the acute pressure that cold weather puts on Accident and Emergency departments around the country. And as part of Giving Tuesday ACEVO is giving away some of its most widely used leadership tools online for free. 

Giving is about living a better life and creating a more generous, less individualistic culture. Voluntary action binds society together. Community groups, churches and mosques build community cohesion and inspire good works like food banks. All major world religions are great drivers of charity and volunteering. One of the five pillars of Islam is ‘zakat’, or almsgiving. Britain’s Muslim charities are under considerable pressure at the moment over their work on the ground in Syria. Up and down the UK we should use Giving Tuesday to rally round to support them. They do our country proud.

Indeed, I couldn’t put it better than St Paul’s first epistle to Timothy: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate.”

So what should you do today, to join in this national celebration? A small act of kindness is all it takes (though a larger one is even better). 

Or give to a local charity. Say yes to a charity fundraiser if they ask you on the street. An act of kindness to a stranger would be an excellent  example to set to others!