Friday 16 September 2016

Charity leadership and existential crisis

It’s no fun to think about the apocalypse, and even less fun to think about slow-moving threats to our civilisations. Countering both is nevertheless a key task, one that cannot forever be put off until tomorrow. It may sound a grand claim, but charities are absolutely at the forefront of unearthing and delivering solutions to these macro-scale events. For this reason, their leadership really needs to be the same calibre, their governance the same quality, as other sectors boast.

Take the old age crisis. In a few decades the ballooning size of the over-70 population will have changed the landscape of the state, with Britain, America, Japan and Germany especially affected. Pensions will not go far enough to cover the elderly’s living costs, let alone inflated health bills. To hope to maintain the standard of life to which Western citizens are accustomed, there need to be structural changes in the tax, welfare, community and health sectors. Public policy gurus are flummoxed.

Charity is already at the vanguard of innovation and best practice in the different aspects of responding to this challenge. Local or national, charities are exploring innovations promoting better care, whether that be social or residential. Charities provide important services for the elderly – medical help, mobility assistance, backing to personal independence, and a supportive community. They coordinate volunteers to aid those in trouble, help fight loneliness, and just bring a bit of human warmth.

Taking a wider view, our largest charities are crucial drivers of medical research and technological advancement, whether that be treatments, live-extension innovations or palliative breakthroughs. Charity funding is behind possible solutions to protracted problems including stem cells, genome mapping and nanotechnology.

There are further existential threats that come from antibiotics losing effectiveness. Scientists hope to find new powerful antibiotics in unexplored areas of the world such as rainforests, where biodiversity is robust: third sector activism and funding protects these areas, aids exploration, and seeks to conserve nature. A linked issue is food shortage: if pollinators like bees, bats and insects suffer catastrophic population decline through climate change, or global warming affects water and soil quality, human crops would fail. Conservation efforts to protect wildlife ecosystems and vulnerable areas across the world help stave off this possibility.

Society can also be imperilled by intercommunity violence, civil strife or terror. Work to help neighbours and those of different faiths and ethnicities live happily and cooperate is a central task of many UK charities.  Some of our most active voluntary bodies strive to help refugees and migrants fit in through language assistance, cultural integration and neighbourliness. This important work forms part of the bedrock for our cohesive British landscape.

It’s clear then that charities play imperative roles in acting to counter each of these major hazards, and lobbying states to take effective action against them, and leading the way in researching best practice. This underlines the need for excellent governance across the board. Voluntary sector leaders and those responsible for charities are not minor players, but chain links in society’s armour.

 We need them to be the best they can be.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Our ancient charities

One of the oldest charities in the country is Sherburn House in County Durham.  It was founded in 1181 by a wise and forward thinking Bishop Pudsey of Durham; he also gave them lands that still generate income for this great charity today. It consists of a care home, almshouses and other facilities, as well as a grants programme for the county. It even has its own Act of Parliament under Elizabeth I, passed in 1585 (which came about as a result of some past fraud, nothing new there then!) 

I visited recently and had a great day meeting with the CEO Pauline Bishop and key members of staff, as well as looking around the site and meeting with the trustees. It was fascinating to see the old chapel, still functioning as an integral part of the charity, and they even have their own chaplain (a woman, so they may be ancient but they are up to date theologically). There is an old plaque in the chapel marking the tomb of a former chaplain who, the plaque proclaims, preached to King Edward VI. They even have their own cemetery and a lovely woodland surrounds the site. I was shown the Elizabethan chalice and flagons and patten from the 18th century, which are part of the treasures of the charity.

The trustees are considering how to update their governance arrangements and they very well understood the need for good governance in the light of all the recent publicity. They have their own history of problems and misdemeanours in the past and are clear they wish to be a model of good practice so, for example they are looking at the number of trustees they have, currently 16, terms of office, and the knotty issue of trustees who are nominated by other organisations and therefore may not always feel their responsibility lies with the charity rather than the nominating body.  I've come across this issue before and whilst the legal position is clear, i.e. you must put the charity interest above that of your nominating body, this is often not the reality.

We often forget that our country has a magnificent and proud history of charity, dating back to at least the 7th century. Many of our old charities have their origins in the Church but have reformed and moved with the times, but are still serving their beneficiaries in the way that Bishop Pudsey envisaged some 900 years ago. 

We should celebrate our great history. At some stage in my life I intend to write a history of charity. There is nothing around since the 60s accounts written by Harvard professors. We need a proper history. I'm collecting the material gradually and have even spent a month in archives in the Bodleian in Oxford and at Lambeth Palace. It's a project for my retirement, though that is years off I'm afraid. 

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Governance in Norfolk!

Happisburgh is a stunningly beautiful village on the coast in north Norfolk. But woe betide you if you pronounce it as it is spelt because it is of course "hawsbro". Though I rather like "Happisburgh" pronounced as you would think. It sounds rather New England like...

Anyway I spent 3 days there recently staying with old friends Denise and Stephen Burke, old stalwarts of our sector. Indeed Stephen used to be one of my bosses as an ACEVO trustee (I use the term in a rather loose sense!).

So we mixed business with pleasure and spent some time visiting charities and social enterprises in north Norfolk. First up was Age Concern Norfolk, a well-established and prominent charity. We had a really interesting discussion on governance issues with a good CEO, Hilary McDonald, who clearly gets the need for strong governance in the charity world. 

Then onto the Benjamin Foundation in Norwich where the new CEO Tony Ing has been in post for a year since he took over from a founder CEO. Although that brings its own challenges it was great to see the charity willing to confront and explore the next steps in their journey. It was interesting to explore some of the issues around "founder syndrome". As I know from my time at ACEVO, this has sometimes led to very problematic governance. The drive and determination of a founder in the early stages of creation and innovation need to give way to a more steady state professional style operation and it's a challenge to make the transition carefully. Good luck Tony. It's a great charity and doing impressive work with the homeless in Norwich and Norfolk.

A contrast was meeting the CEO of a social enterprise in the community transport world. Matt Townsend, a CEO who relocated from the inner city London world of social housing to run North Norfolk Community Transport, brings a wealth of talent and experience to this new challenge of trying to provide an effective rural community transport system. They’re lucky to have such a strong and impressive CEO.

And finally on to a learning disability charity where I met the founder and current CEO Helen Dalton-Hare. She rather made the point that not all founders are a problem as she was buzzing with energy and commitment. She runs About With Friends, which she set up because she saw that many people with learning disability had no social life or many connections with the community. And she provides support and training for employment in an area where there is such huge discrimination and ignorance about learning disability. I bought jam! Provision for learning disability in Norfolk is pretty poor and she was rightly rather leery about the so called "transforming care" agenda. We all need the pioneers and advocates of the third sector who see a need and are determined to tackle it.

Overall I think these visits bolstered my belief that what the sector needs is an authoritative source of advice and support on governance. So my work in "Charity Futures" is important. I got a strong feeling of interest and curiosity about what I'm up to. There was strong agreement this we need to "sort governance" in our sector. But it is also clear to me that this is such a big canvas there is no point in jumping in with solutions at this stage. So my journey of discovery will continue. Interesting that the picture on governance in our sector is not significantly different in a largely rural area from what we see in London or nationally.

And finally I can recommend Happisburgh. Come and see the wonderful lighthouse. And the looming church and the pub where Conan Doyle wrote one of his Sherlock books....

Perhaps the biggest lesson overall from the visits was that people generally find it difficult to know where to go for advice and support on governance. Once upon a time the Charity Commission had more resources to provide that support. They don't now and in any case have whittled their emphasis to regulation, not advice. That has left a gap. So where do people go for advice on a scheme of appraisal or induction? Authoritative advice on what is good practice?

Stephen Bubb

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Sharia compliant governance

Since my appearance at the "Living Islam Festival" in Lincoln I've been thinking and discussing how we develop stronger governance in our Muslim charity world. The UK has some very great Muslim charities and the fact is that the Muslim community is the most generous of our communities in terms of its giving. During Ramadan over £100m is raised for charity. They put their Christian compatriots to shame in how they support charity. This is something we should celebrate. But we don't.  Instead, especially since Brexit, we have seen a rise in intolerance and hate crime.

However that is not to say there are no problems. It is clear that the Muslim charity world has grown exponentially but its governance has not. We can see the same problems of founder syndrome that beset other charities. Many of the boards of trustees are too large and often too old. But there is appetite for change, and we need to support and encourage that change.  One of my criticisms of the Charity Commission is not that it is not doing its regulatory job, but that there is a perception of fierce and disproportionate regulation when what we need is more support and encouragement. We need to work together to change that perception.

Since my Lincoln visit I have been speaking to various Muslim leaders and charities. In particular, I have accepted the role of one of the patrons of the Muslim Charity Forum, a great organisation that is working to develop leadership, and I met their leaders recently to talk about how we can develop their umbrella role in the sector.

The Cambridge Muslim College is a particular treasure. I went to see the Dean and Academic Director over August. It was one of those meetings where you get a flash of the blindingly obvious. If we are to make inroads into governance reform and development in the Muslim charity world, we need to develop what we can describe as Sharia compliant codes of governance.

There is nothing in our current Code of Good Governance that is inimical to Islamic teaching, indeed the underpinning ethics of the code are found in the tenets of Islam. However the code is expressed in the language of the Anglo Saxon world of management-speak. It is however easily translated into the language and teachings of the Koran. Indeed the development of Islamic charities has close parallels with the teaching of the Christian faith.  One of the 5 pillars of Islamic faith is charity or giving, just as in the Bible we are taught that giving is essential to the Christian life.

And this applies also to the development of leadership and management training; again the texts here are so often driven by an Anglo Saxon, usually American approach, when we could root the learning in the traditions of the Islamic world.

So there is work to do.  But we must be clear: if we are to encourage our Muslim communities to play a full life in civil society, an approach based on tolerance and respect is needed. Unfortunately we have a government-driven approach based on counter terrorism and legislation which undermines efforts to support our 3m strong Muslim community.

So now my task is to work with colleagues to see how we can develop this "Sharia compliant" approach. Of course it may raise eyebrows... I remember the speech of the former Archbishop of Canterbury when he talked of Sharia but then again we do need this debate.