Stuart Etherington: ‘Brexit is curbing our influence on the government’ | Society


After 25 years at the helm of the flagship for charities in England, Sir Stuart Etherington finds himself being piped ashore to the familiar strains of a row over charity bosses’ pay. “It’s something that will keep coming back,” he says resignedly. “We have to keep trying to explain.”

As chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), explaining and justifying how charities pay staff, how they fundraise and how they safeguard those they work with has consumed much of Etherington’s time recently, as controversies have raged over all three issues. It has, he acknowledges, often kept him on the back foot when he needed to be making the sector’s case to governments increasingly distracted by other things – not least Brexit. “In a very limited way, we have continued to have relationships with government,” he says. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to say we don’t have any influence at the moment, but it’s certainly reasonable to say our influence is less than it was, simply because they’re not interested in policies other than getting this stuff through.”

Guidance on a no-deal Brexit issued by the NCVO to its members this week warns of possible “dire consequences” for the economy and the context in which charities work, including the potential loss of at least £258m of EU funding for the voluntary sector. Tellingly, though, Etherington declined to add NCVO’s name to a round-robin letter signed by other charity umbrella groups and charities in protest at the prorogation of parliament. With the streets teeming with demonstrators, he says he does not see evidence of civil society being muzzled. “This is constraining representative democracy,” he argues. “There is an element of participative democracy that should be defending representative democracy, but that’s not what the letter said. It said the government was closing down the space for civil society. There’s no evidence that is the case.”

Critics will see that answer as typical of someone they think has been too reluctant to take on the government and too slow to respond to a changing environment. Even a new authorised history of NCVO, commissioned by Etherington and the organisation’s board but given free rein, concludes: ”We finish the story with it searching for a new role, in the absence of a supportive state, with a question mark over how well attuned it is to the new forms of social action that have emerged over the past decade.”

Etherington, 64, freely admits that his style has been to work behind the scenes rather than stride out with banners waving. While others were going public with concerns about so-called gagging clauses in government contracts, he was extracting a letter of clarification from Theresa May that charities delivering services would remain free to speak out. “It’s a reasonably powerful letter that we can wave under people’s noses,” he says.

When he steps down next week, in NCVO’s centenary year, he will leave a record of solid growth to around 14,000 members and £8.4m annual income, – though that has dipped from a peak of more than £10m – and an unrivalled profile as the sector’s senior spokesman. Not bad for a working-class boy who failed the 11-plus.

Etherington says that the early days of the Blair government, from 1997 into the new century, were golden years for NCVO and what was then termed the third sector, chiming with New Labour’s “third way”. Money was flowing into public services, and charities were seen as key delivery partners, with seats at the top table and a voice in policymaking. He now sees David Cameron’s ill-fated “big society” vision as arguably a missed opportunity to regain that level of influence.

“Perhaps we could have made more of that,” he muses, but adds that it was hard to try to shape the inchoate idea when Cameron and his advisers were antipathetic to traditional infrastructure bodies like NCVO, and charities were being battered by austerity. “It was difficult to say let’s look at the positive aspects of big society when our members were saying: ‘Hang on, Stuart, we’re closing.’”

May made a speech on the voluntary sector while prime minister, he recalls, in which she coined the term “shared society”. “There was nothing to get hold of. We wrote letters saying we’d like to come to talk about the shared society, and what it might mean, but, no, nothing.” There was also a new civil society strategy, published last year, but “not a lot of that has been implemented”.

And now the Boris Johnson era, however short it may turn out to be. Last week, Etherington had his first and only meeting with the new civil society minister, Diana Barran, a former charity leader who sits in the House of Lords and is the fifth person in the job since 2014. The conversation was described by the NCVO as “positive and constructive”, but was dominated by Brexit issues, including the need for detail – conspicuously absent from last week’s spending review – on what exactly is going to replace money from the European Social Fund and other EU pots that underpins many charity projects.

He has never seen his role as that of cheerleader for charities, however. When there has been bad practice, he has called it out. Eyebrows were raised when he agreed to lead the 2015 inquiry into the fundraising controversy in response to concerns over charities’ high-pressure techniques. This led to reforms including creation of the Fundraising Regulator, which he thinks has worked “reasonably well” in curbing the worst excesses. There have been no subsequent scandals, he notes, and he hopes the issue may have been put to bed by a combination of those measures and the new data protection rules.

He is less confident about the more recent safeguarding controversy, sparked by revelations of sexual abuse by Oxfam and Save the Children aid workers. He thinks it will be difficult to eradicate such episodes overseas, not least because manipulative abusers are drawn to the work in often isolated settings. From next month, NCVO will be hosting an online library of training materials for UK charities, which, he agrees, need to sharpen their awareness of safeguarding issues.

Managers’ pay is making headlines again after it emerged that sexual health charity Marie Stopes International last year paid its chief executive £434,000, half of which was a performance-related bonus. The Charity Commission says it is “now looking closely” at senior pay in the sector and collecting data for a forthcoming report. Action against individual charities may follow.

Etherington, who is paid £145,734, thinks charities should be required to match NCVO’s transparency by naming their higher earners – above “say, £60,000 or £70,000” – and explain how their salaries are arrived at by way of benchmarking the roles. He says he is “not a great fan” of performance-related pay and does not think charities should pay unconsolidated bonuses. But he knows that his successor, Karl Wilding, will repeatedly have to defend the payment of any remuneration against critics who, he says, still think charities are “all run by volunteers off kitchen tables”.

Wilding, currently NCVO’s director of public policy and volunteering, has already begun work on a new strategy for the organisation. “I don’t know what that will look like, it’s none of my business,” says Etherington. “But the time is right for NCVO to move to a position where it is on the front foot.” One piece of advice that the departing chief has been giving his successor, publicly, in recent months has been to ensure that charities are able to preserve the authenticity of what they are and what they do. Growth, he cautions, should never be seen as an end in itself.

“We’re talking a values proposition,” he says. “That’s about altruism and that’s not the same proposition as the market. It doesn’t really matter what size you are.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 64.

Family: Married.

Lives: Greenwich, south London.

Education: Sondes Place secondary modern school, Dorking, Surrey; Brunel University, London (BSc politics and CQSW social work); University of Essex (MA social planning); London Business School (MBA); SOAS, University of London (MA international relations).

Career: 1994-present: chief executive, National Council for Voluntary Organisations; 1991-94: chief executive, Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID); 1987-91: director of public affairs, RNID; 1985-87: director, Good Practices in Mental Health; 1983-85: policy adviser, British Association of Social Workers; 1980-83: researcher, Circle 33 housing association; 1977-79: social worker, Hillingdon council, west London.

Public: Knighted for services to the third sector, 2010.

Interests: Surrey cricket, Charlton football, opera, naval history.

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