I've been a fan of the Today programme since I was a kid (indeed I'm on it enough!) But I never dreamt it would be responsible for the
next stage of my career. Last year I did a interview on the lessons from the
demise of the Kids Company. I said that this was an object lesson in charity
funding: neglect the back office and front line delivery suffers. I said that
funders need to remember that money must be spent on building infrastructure in
top leadership and governance. Listening to the Today programme was a
philanthropist who couldn't agree more and got in touch with me. And so half a
year later I'm stepping down as the CEO of ACEVO to lead a new programme to
build better governance.
The philanthropist in question has decided to remain
anonymous - not seeking publicity or branding. Its an old tradition much rarer
in these days when people demand "transparency" but there is a strong
Biblical injunction not to boast about giving;
"When you give to the poor, don’t blow a loud horn.
That’s what show-offs do in the meeting places and on the street corners,
because they are always looking for praise."
Or obviously, I prefer the King James version;
when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as
the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have
glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."
So Bible trumps transparency!
Inevitably I think back to the near 16 years I've spent
at ACEVO. It all began at a party in Notting Hill. I was chatting to 3
stalwarts of the third sector; Susie Parsons, head of The Lighthouse, Judi
Clements, head of Mind and the indomitable Val Amos. I'd been approached by a
head hunter to apply for the ACEVO CEO post. I wasn't sure. They told me it just wouldn't suit me;
too staid and traditional, "why, they even have Scottish country dancing
at their conference"! So that was the clincher. A challenge!
It was a strange beginning. An office in Harrow for
goodness sake. 9 staff. A very old fashioned voluntary sector feel but I set
about the task with gusto. Moving to London proper was top of the list and we
were soon in Victoria and beginning to grow. The high point in our development
was when my then Chair John Low and myself were being photographed atop the
office, Parliament in the background and celebrating our 2000th member. At the
high point we had over 40 staff. Alas, like so much of our sector times have
changed, austerity has wreaked havoc among many charities and ACEVO has not
been immune to those pressures. But our voice and our presence is as strong as
ever. Promoting the value of sector leaders, our delivery role and our
There are so many anecdotes to tell. Many will wait for
the autobiography but some highlights now. In the golden days I remember being
in No. 10 with my board members meeting Tony Blair to discuss how the third
sector could help reform public services. He was late. I'm told by "a
source" that when he went into his office for his briefing he looked at
the file and said, words to the effect "what the f ... am I doing meeting
the voluntary sector". I guess as well you might. When he returned to his office he was reformed -
he said we have to do this. And that was the start of the Office of the Third
sector, Ed Miliband's first job and the third sector service delivery white
paper. Shortly thereafter Blair came to a packed out hall to a conference on
"future public services" to hear me talk about how to reform public
services through our third sector. Blair was great. As always. Though he
managed to forget to announce the key part of his speech when he was to launch
an initiative with RNID!
Fast forward some
years and I was standing next to David Cameron to launch his "Open Public
Services" white paper. I quoted Machiavelli to him, much to his amusement!
I've had many conversations with our current PM over the
last 6 years. He happens to also be my MP and we sometimes chat over the
vegetables at the Farmers Market in Charlbury. One slightly awkward moment was
a chat the day before I knew that the Times were running a front page story
headed "Big Society is Dead". A story that Nick Hurd reminds me they
have since run on a number of occasions. But nevertheless that didn't stop him
asking me to head up the task force on choice and competition in the NHS during
the infamous "pause" on the Health Bill. I well remember the day I
became the first, and so far only charity leader to address a meeting of the
British Cabinet. I had 2 minutes. And
though I shouldn't be immodest it was a powerful contribution. Brilliant was
what one Cabinet Minister said, but I mustn't blow my horn! I have framed my
notes from that event.
But its not always been a happy relationship. Once,
following an explosive piece in The Times on my excoriating analysis of
government cuts on our sector I has a visit form Eric Pickles. He told me of
the PM's displeasure in graphic terms and suggested I might reform. Clearly
that was a sobering conversation and I talked to colleagues on what to do. But
the consensus was clear. Your job is to say it how it is. Its your members you
should worry about, not politicians.
But its the
contact and interchange with members that's been one of the highlights of the
job. Our sector has some incredible people; strong leaders committed to the
cause and its always been fun meeting and hearing from them. One thing is for
sure - no ACEVO member holds back on their views!
I'm not sure how it will feel in June when I no longer
have that CEO role. I'm not sure I'll miss the managerial aspects of the CEO
role and I will relish the opportunities for innovation and creativity that
come with my new role.
The funder has put his trust in me to deliver a major and
important initiative to boost better governance. A 2 year programme and who
knows where that will lead or where my next challenge will be.
It's 15 years since I took up the reins at ACEVO and I'm
63. But I've never felt like retiring!
I'm not the retiring type, and still too energetic to retire. There is much to
sort. Recent media scrutiny, pay, fundraising and the Kids Co debacle did
convince me we must do something to support better strategic leadership and
governance in our sector.
Indeed I know, from the far too many ACEVO cases of CEOs
in trouble with bad governance, that something more is needed. And I'm glad to
say that a philanthropist thought so too, and is giving ACEVO a substantial
donation to enable me to lead a "charity futures programme". This
will look at how to build what we have been describing in our ACEVO strategic
plan as a "charity excellence hub". Looking at a big intervention
that boosts support for charity infrastructure.
To do this effectively, I am going to stand down as the
CEO and, whilst remaining in ACEVO, I will lead this project from July for 2
years and probably beyond.
I'm excited by the ambition of the project. My 15 years
have taught me that our sectors' leaders need the level of support and
development that other sectors take for granted. And when we face the
challenges of delivery against constrained resources and attacks in the media
and elsewhere, great leadership and good governance become so much more
I sent a message to ACEVO members yesterday to thank
them for the strong support, comfort and
advice over the years. I have tried to be a strong and robust voice for sector
leaders. In doing this I always felt I had my ACEVO members with me, urging me
ACEVO has achieved great things over the last 15 years.
The fact we are a more professional sector, with stronger leaders; our work on
full cost recovery; setting up the Office of the Third Sector; promoting the
role of third sector service delivery has made a difference. I'm proud of the
work I did championing the rights of people with learning disabilities in my
report on Winterbourne View. I'm proud to have led ACEVO and made an impact in
our sector and on the national stage. A CEO should step down feeling they have
made a difference. And sometimes it's been rocky - but if you are a CEO
remember you do not make omelettes without breaking eggs.
The great thing is by remaining in ACEVO I will continue
to see members, continue to make my views known, revitalise my Blog, but wearing a different hat!
- for reflections on my 15 years and our governance on
July 18th; an early evening lecture and reception. I'm pleased that my
colleague Stuart Etherington will join me to give his views on the state of
governance in our sector. How times have changed!