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;
"Therefore 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 advocacy.
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 important.
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 on!
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!
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