Asheem Singh: Umbrella hell - the charity infrastructure system is designed wrong

29 Jan 2021 Voices

Asheem Singh, former interim CEO at ACEVO, offers some analysis of the current problems facing the sector's representative bodies

How do you follow a legend? Perhaps ask David Moyes, who had a brief, unhappy period as ‘the chosen one’ to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Or indeed, ask Karl Wilding, successor to the legendary Sir Stuart Etherington at NCVO. His departure earlier this week brought back memories of my own time as interim CEO at sister-organisation ACEVO, where I held the reins for a while following the similarly-legendary Sir Stephen Bubb. 

Following legends is always hard, but following a legend in the charity sector is positively sisyphean. In part this is because our organisations often bend to the will of high quality leaders. Activists, staff, volunteers look to someone who can motivate them, often in difficult circumstances. This creates emotional bonds that bring a kind of grief once broken. 

The problem for the charity umbrella and advocacy sector is even greater: advocates who last often do so because they are, well, good. When you lose high quality advocates, they are not easily replaced. And without effective structures to account for this brain-drain: the wider sector is not effectively represented and it suffers.

This is the situation we have today. The problems in the charity umbrella sector that precipitated some of this week’s events tell us much about where we are as a sector; where the ever-more beleaguered umbrella bodies of our sector are currently getting it wrong; and what we need to change in order to rouse charity’s collective voice once more. 

Insider art

Even without Sir Stuart’s long, pinstriped shadow casting across the sector, it would have been difficult for Wilding to be a long-term appointee. A self-professed ‘voluntary sector lifer’ and NCVO employee for 23 years, he was appointed by the NCVO board at a time when the sector’s tendency to nurture insiders was under severe scrutiny. 

Movements like Black Lives Matter and later Charity So White have begun to reveal the injustices at the heart of the ‘insider’ approach to corporate recruitment. Correspondingly, there was a murmur of discontent across pockets of the sector, especially online, as the appointment was announced. Most agreed Wilding was a popular and well-intentioned choice and cast no aspersions about NCVO’s process. But the whole thing felt problematic.  Among young, non-white folks especially, the charity sector looked a bit more like a racket than it already did. 

The job of following a legend was already hard enough without this.

Umbrella – ey –ey -ey

But it’s not credible to suggest that this obstacle was insuperable. We get a bit further by understanding the wider, parlous state of charity umbrella and infrastructure bodies.

It was sad to see during the Covid crisis that Wilding consistently lamented that no-one in government was listening. I remember in my time at ACEVO, Bubb had a direct line to the prime minister of the day and could call him pretty much whenever. Similarly, when I was working for a government minister, he would often moan about another late night call from Etherington. Lobbying and advocacy begin with one thing: relationships. Who in the umbrella sector and in the wider world do we have with that combination of talents - of gumption, cunning, strategy and finesse – to make the sector’s collective case in the chambers where decision are made?

I can name a handful of current sector CEOs off the top of my head whose skills I admire in this regard. Leaders like Richard Hawkes or Kathy Evans get (perhaps intuitively? I’m just guessing) the golden rule of effective lobbying: to say something that shows you mean business you generally have to alienate 25-40% (the percentage is key, you can’t go too far) of your natural constituency while saying it. If you’re not bothering to do that then generally you have nothing worth saying. 

Today’s umbrella bodies find themselves almost universally in the latter category. We’ve seen, this last four years, umbrella advocacy struggle with technology. Another circular, another hashtag: I fear it is a sophisticated form of displacement activity. These approaches have no real prospect of landing any kind of tangible change for the betterment of the sector as a whole. For officials in government, such campaigns are just another page of millions on or 38 degrees.  And thus I fear that the main umbrella infrastructure bodies move increasingly from being influencers to being echo chambers.  

Back on track

The old NCVO-ACEVO nexus, for its bite - indeed because of it - made inroads. The golden pilot funds of the Blair years bore their insignia. The narrative centrality of The Big Society had a smiling Bubb at its centre. When I was leading ACEVO, we reversed the anti-advocacy or gagging clause. Now the clause is back again and who fights against it, with the command of granular detail, poise and chutzpah to deliver a positive outcome?

The current generation of umbrellas appear to have some virtues: they are liked. They have members. They cater to what members want. In part this is understandable. The economics of small membership organisations post-crash has meant that umbrellas have had to follow the money and so the membership subs. But in so doing, they appear to have jettisoned their judgement and influence (and no, ‘difficult conversations’ with members on race and ‘diversity’ are not a mark in your favour: the sector is pretty much united on the need for those ones, as it damn well should be).

Umbrellas need to earn the right to influence once more by challenging the sector first on the things that matter. Is the sector’s operational response to Covid-19 being matched by government funds? Is the value of mutual aid groups being priced in to government support? Should we risk what support exists by suggesting that government wholesale funds our work? What are our conditions for downing tools? These fissiparous conversations we must have, and once they have been had, then we move, with credibility, into an arena where you can influence, rather than lamenting the silence or praying for manna. 

I’m a designer of systems and for me it’s clear that the umbrella system is designed wrong. Generally, like unions, these organisations combine advocacy, learning and development and member convening. Yet what is happening is that convening for development (where the money is) is taking a front seat while convening-for-advocacy is being sidelined. The advocacy brain drain – and influence and support lost by the sector – is thus a feature, not a bug of the current system. 

The sector pays for these misaligned incentives with the slow, curious death of its own voice. It’s time, then, I think, for it to have an honest conversation about how charities want to be represented on these big, cross sector issues - the Covid recovery, the climate crisis and more - as it’s not happening properly at the moment. Such a body might work directly with crack charity policy teams and senior advocates and generally be accountable for performance against the big issues, rather than hide behind membership numbers or other inconsequential metrics. It might democratise through crowdfunding which issues are campaigned on and tactically researched. The time has come for a single organisation to be tasked with this, out of the ashes of the old bodies, with a mandate to get things done. 

Ultimately it’s up to these private organisations to make this move; to carry on as is or vacate the space. I hope they take this challenge and reflect seriously on it. I think the biggest indictment of the post Brexit charity advocacy sector is that when the young, new chancellor talked about them, he said they were ‘gentle’. Rishi Sunak may well be a craven, libertarian zealot who in policy terms has been positively harmful to the nation’s health during the course of this pandemic, but this itself was a failure, not only of his own imagination but also of charity advocacy. That the word ‘gentle’ should never have even been allowed to emanate from his mouth on live television was a disgrace. Think of the struggle, the maw, the guts, the tears, the support, everything you as charity workers do. And you’re described by the second most powerful man in the country as nothing more than a knitted scarf.

Charity advocates need to relearn the art of getting peoples’ backs up and demand some spike, some cunning and wiliness and some guts from its advocates once again. Else they will be ignored into oblivion by those not fit to lace their boots.

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