Sir Stuart Etherington has urged charities to be bolder and more confident when campaigning during the General Election, but also said that the sector needs to address concerns about governance.
Delivering the annual State of the Sector address at NCVO’s conference this morning, Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, told the audience that charities should be proud of the place they occupy in society and should be bolder and more creative in addressing problems.
“Charities are the way people choose to come together and make a bigger difference,” he said. “So there is much to celebrate.”
But that the sector needs to make sure it defines its own future by having the debate on governance before others “do it for us”.
Etherington said the future is uncertain, and that Brexit means “we are in unchartered territory”.
“We need to create our own future,” he said, “and to help create the whole country’s future.”
‘Stand our ground, and stand together’
In light of Brexit and the recently announced General Election, Etherington urged the sector to “campaign with confidence”.
“One of the biggest challenges we need to address is this tendency to tell ourselves we cannot change the world around us,” he said. “We can. We are. We do.”
He said that sometimes it is “difficult” but that “with the monumental changes taking place in British society now it is more important than ever that we be bold in our approach, innovative in our thinking and determined in our mindset”.
“Now is the time for us to stand our ground, to stand together,” he said, and that “now is not the time to tell ourselves that we are under threat, or that we cannot be a voice for those who have been ignored.”
He added that: "I want to reiterate that over the coming weeks, in particular, that you should speak up on the issues that concern you. NCVO will be behind you."
In response to a question about restrictions on charity campaigning, he said that the government should have implemented the recommendations made by Lord Hodgson to improve the Lobbying Act.
On anti-advocacy clauses in grant agreements, he said "progress had been made" after the Cabinet Office dropped a proposed clause for all contracts. But he said that if there are plans by departments to "rekindle" it NCVO would "very much like to hear about it".
"If there are particular examples then we would be more than happy to support any organisation," he said.
He said that responding to the aftermath of Brexit requires “bold leadership” and it could “require us to work with those we might not agree with”, as well as with “courage and bravery”.
Etherington said the sector should “distinguish ourselves from the melee of interests which are lobbying government for replacements for funding” and instead set out a “vision” about how charities and government can work together to address the concerns of communities.
He reminded the audience that politicians and civil servants are focused on Brexit.
“So we have to stop waiting to be asked,” he said, “and put forward our knowledge and expertise, our solutions, and of course our users and beneficiaries.”
He said that he believes that politicians are prepared to listen to charities.
He also said that he hoped “the next government will be willing to recommit to the Compact”.
Endow community foundations with dormant assets
Etherington suggested that the government should use the recent dormant assets windfall to endow community foundations.
“I would like to see these funds become the investments that could sustain local charities for decades to come,” he said.
He told the audience that he had "always been a fan" of the movement and that it was time to think about what "alternative sources" of finances are available, with "local government under pressure for the foreseeable future".
‘Debate on the future of charity governance’
Etherington told the audience that “good governance is mission-critical” and that “improving it is an ongoing task”.
He said there are “valid concerns about weak governance,” but that the sector is listening and the Charity Commission’s endorsement of the new Code of Good Governance is an “example of how we can lead the agenda”.
“The next step,” he said, “is a debate on what the future of charity governance should look like.”
He added: “I want us in this room today to define the future of charity governance, before others start to do it for us.”
‘Risen to the challenge on fundraising’
Etherington told delegates the sector has “risen to the challenge” when it comes to fundraising practices.
Two years’ ago Etherington used his speech at NCVO’s annual conference to launch a stinging attack on the old system of self-regulation, by saying that the current system was not working following intense media criticism of fundraising practicies after the death of 92-year-old poppy seller Olive Cooke. He then carried out a review for the government and a new Fundraising Regulator has been set up.
Today he said that responding to concerns about fundraising was “one of the single most difficult issues the sector has had to face up to in decades”.
He praised the leaders at charities for making changes, and said: “We have a good story to tell about how we are acting on the public’s concerns, and, despite the short-term upheaval, I believe we will be in a stronger place for the future.”
From Governance & Leadership magazine
Volunteering and public services
Etherington also called on the sector to “change the debate” around volunteering and public services, which has sometimes been negatively focused on the idea that volunteers are replacing paid staff.
“We should stop addressing concerns about job substitution and poor quality volunteer management by apologising for the involvement of volunteers,” he said. He also urged charities to ask themselves if there is more they could do to encourage and support volunteers.