Acevo repeatedly rejected NCVO offers to merge, says 'frustrated' NCVO chair

08 Nov 2016 News

Martyn Lewis speaking at NCVO's Trustee Conference

NCVO/Rebecca Fennell

Sir Martyn Lewis used his final speech as chair of NCVO yesterday to publicly declare that Acevo had repeatedly rejected overtures from NCVO for their two organisations to merge.

He added that after six years of constant frustration, he had concluded that such a merger will never happen, and so NCVO ought to establish a division specifically for chief executives, in direct competition to Acevo.

Sir Martyn began his closing speech at NCVO’s annual Trustees’ Conference in London by paying tribute to the organisation he has chaired for the past six years.

“I stand in awe of the vast range of work, activities and lobbying which NCVO undertakes,” he said. “It is a truly formidable machine.

“We know when to take a vigorous lead and when to lobby quietly in the background or in private in order to achieve the right result for the sector. There are few decisions affecting the voluntary sector in which NCVO does not play a substantial part.”

After insisting that none of his NCVO colleagues were aware of what he was about to say, he went on to confess that his biggest frustration during his six-year tenure was Acevo’s ongoing reluctance to enter into merger talks with NCVO.

“The will to talk, chair to chair, has been there on both sides right from the start, with plenty of good conversations and good intentions,” he announced.

“But somewhere in the heart of Acevo, whether at board level or elsewhere, any hint at growing co-operation that might eventually lead to a merger has been repeatedly pushed away.”

He said there had been one exception to this; last year when NCVO and Acevo did work together to counter the wave of media attacks against charities.

“We together worked well on that which at least showed that we could do it,” Sir Martyn said. “So earlier this year, when circumstances within Acevo changed with the great Sir Stephen Bubb (chief executive for the last ten years) standing down, we had a series of further meetings from which there appeared some hope that at least talks about merger talks might be back on the agenda.

“But yet again, after initial signs of optimism, those hopes were dashed, with Acevo opting not only to advertise for a new chief executive but for two new senior executives as well.”

He said he stands by the view that “if ever there was an ideal time for our two organisations to push towards a merger, this was it and is it”.

He went on: “My view is reinforced by the fact that several influential leaders in the charity sector have in the last few weeks approached both NCVO and Acevo to argue exactly that. They told me that their position represents a prevailing view within the sector. On top of that they point out why a growing number of large charities are disinclined to fund two separate representative bodies when one could do both jobs more effectively, particularly in the context of other bodies such as the Fundraising Regulator which they also now have to fund.”

Sir Martyn reflected that talking with Acevo has been “like juggling with sand - one day you see possibilities on the distant horizon; a week later you realise it was only a mirage”.

“After six years of this I have come to the conclusion that this necessary and sensible merger will never happen, despite growing pressures from the sector. And if I am right about that, my proposed solution is this, that NCVO sets up a new division specifically to look after chief executives - a direct rival to Acevo.”

He ventured that some of his NCVO colleagues, including chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington, “may well throw up their hands in horror at such a confrontational suggestion”.

“But as outgoing chairman I’d at least like to lay that on the table as a way forward dictated by six years of experience and frustration in this particular area.

“At the very least I think it would be beneficial to explore the support amongst all of you and throughout the sector for this suggestion. I would welcome feedback at [email protected]

New ‘co-operation and mergers unit’

Sir Martyn also used his address to express his support for the encouragement of more mergers in the sector generally.  He urged the establishment of a ‘co-operation and mergers unit’ so that charities can “privately explore who else is operating on their patch in different parts of the UK and what efficiencies and wider reach could be achieved by sharing back-room services, setting up joint ventures and partnerships and yes, even merging”.

This should also be used by people wanting to set up new charities.

The Charity Commission could help by making its data available in a way that makes it easier for all charities to identify potential partners or candidates for mergers, he said.

He pointed out that in his six years at NCVO the organisation has undergone three mergers, including one with Volunteering England, and all of them have been “extremely successful”.

He said he didn’t know why the UK needed over 1,000 military charities or 200 umbrella bodies: “Really tackling the duplication in our sector would send another favourable signal to donors that we are getting our act together."

Response from Acevo

Acevo said that Lewis' public statement did not match the conversations they had had in private and Sir Stephen Bubb has responded to the story on Twitter. 

In a statement Acevo said: "Martyn Lewis as chair of the NCVO has been a hugely respected advocate for the charity sector.  We are thankful for his service and we will be sorry to see him go. 
"We continue to work with NCVO on issues of sector-wide importance, including recent joint letters to the government on anti-advocacy clauses and proposals to the Chancellor regarding the Autumn Statement and we continue to have constructive conversations on a range of issues.
"We note that the opinions expressed by Martyn do not reflect the conversations we have had in private on a range of issues. We intend to respect the confidentiality of those conversations and to continue them in a constructive spirit."

On Twitter Bubb said that it was right to reject merger offers because "there is no case". 

More on