Charity leaders too risk-averse and need more courage, says Etherington

13 Oct 2016 News

The charity sector has become more risk-averse as a result of recent scrutiny, and must show courage and a “moral compass”, the chief executive of NCVO warned yesterday.

Sir Stuart Etherington also said the sector has “gone backwards” on equality and diversity.

Etherington was speaking in London yesterday at the launch of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the Open University Business School, a new centre which will provide voluntary sector organisations with free leadership and governance training online.

Scrutiny is making sector risk-averse

Etherington told the event that increased media scrutiny had led to risk-aversion among charity leaders.

“Recently we’ve come under more scrutiny,” he said. “That’s had a dramatic effect on leadership in our sector. It’s created different sorts of pressure. Sector leaders have got more defensive. Risk analysis has become more important. And not just concerning risk as something to be tested, understood and taken, but as something to be avoided.”

Etherington said that this scrutiny had also led to governance becoming a key issue in the voluntary sector.

“It’s come back foursquare,” he said. “Why? Because of Kids Company, fundraising, senior pay? The issue always comes back to trustees.”

He said it presented a difficult challenge.

“Those people have got to be good,” he said. “But if we put too much on them, they will walk away. If we put too much on them, we won’t be able to attract people.”

Focus on moral compass

Etherington also said that “a focus on the moral compass” was “something missing” in leadership training in the voluntary sector.

“Some of the most difficult leadership challenges in charity are about difficult moral decisions and judgement calls,” he said.

“Take the fundraising debate. That was an interesting question about leadership. People were prepared – for the sake of beneficiaries – to try and raise ever more money from ever fewer people, and ask no moral questions about what that meant.”

Charities need courage to campaign

Etherington also warned of the need for more courage in the charity sector. He said the sector needed to be prepared to challenge and try to change the status quo, and that this needed campaigning.

“There is an issue with courage,” he said. “Charities need to show the courage to try to change the environment in which they are operating.”

He said that charities needed to be careful not to become too opposed to government, or to anyone else they were trying to change.

“You can adopt an inside approach or an outside approach,” he said. “But you need to move between them. If you adopt only an outside approach people begin to think you’ve gone barking mad and stop listening to you.”

He warned that public service delivery had diluted this courage in some cases.

“As we get closer to the public sector we have tended to campaign less,” he said. “If you get very big and you’re a quasi-public agency it’s hard to challenge the status quo.”

He said this had already happened in the housing sector. He said that housing associations as they became bigger had moved from campaigning about issues of social justice to talking about rent reviews and better housing grants.

Going backwards on gender mix

Etherington also said the charity sector had gone backwards on equality and diversity.

He said that when he had started working in the voluntary sector, leaders of charities had been “all men except Geraldine Peacock”. He said the number of women had increased, and had then diminished again.

“I think the gender mix has gone backwards a bit,” he said.

He also said that charities had not done enough to encourage ethnic minorities into leadership positions. He said he could think of very few examples of leaders of voluntary organisations from minority ethnic backgrounds.


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