Cultural Playing Field


NCVO Annual Conference 2019 by Robin Simpson
April 5, 2019, 3:19 pm
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On Monday I was at The Brewery in London for the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

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Sir Stuart Etherington, who has been Chief Executive of NCVO for 25 years and retires later this year, gave his final State of the Sector address. Referring to the current political turmoil, Stuart said: “In the vacuum to come there will be plenty of people trying to mould things in their own interests. We must be the ones sticking up for the interests of others – those who cannot speak for themselves. Investing in social growth should go hand in hand with investing in economic growth: productivity is no good without community”.

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Giving the keynote presentation Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB’s new Chief Executive, urged us to make this “the century of the citizen: a more empowered, connected and equal world”. On Oxfam’s safeguarding failures in Haiti he said “just because we are working to do good doesn’t mean we are exempt from doing harm”. He talked about the role bigger charities such as Oxfam could play within the voluntary sector, to become “less of a super tanker, more of a dockyard”.

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The afternoon keynote was an inspirational presentation by Ruth Ibegbuna, Founder, RECLAIM and the Roots Programme. She spoke about establishing RECLAIM – a charity for “the grey kids in the middle”: working class young people being seen, being heard, leading change. Ruth also explained how she had developed the Roots Programme as her response to the divisions exposed by the EU referendum. Roots focusses on understanding our differences, enabling families from very different communities to spend time in each other’s homes. It’s a brilliant initiative – one of very few to be actually trying to address the underlying problems highlighted by Brexit. Ruth said “I’m a tired woman with MS in the North of England who’s trying to fix Brexit” – all power to her. See: https://rootsprogramme.org/

Robin Simpson.



Continuity and change in an era of instability by Robin Simpson
February 15, 2019, 9:42 am
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BVSC Chief Executive, Brian Carr, opening the event

On Thursday I was at BVSC, The Centre for Voluntary Action, in Birmingham for an event organised by the Third Sector Research Centre and BVSC to mark the tenth anniversary of TSRC. ‘Continuity and change in an era of instability: developing a shared agenda for voluntary action research and practice’ brought together academics and voluntary sector leaders to look at the state of the third sector and the role research can play.

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Dan Corry

Dan Corry, Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, gave the keynote presentation, emphasising that a strong civil society is crucial to a successful society and a successful economy, not least in relation to generating social capital. He described civil society as what people in local communities choose to do and looked at where civil society is weak and what we can do about it. Looking at the research data he noted that more prosperous areas have a higher density of charities (though this only counts registered charities) and volunteering rates are higher in more prosperous areas. He talked about a growing spilt between professional charities and volunteer-led ones. Dan Corry finished by saying we need more academics looking at the voluntary sector – and this requires a dedicated funding stream. He said charities want easy access to longitudinal data and noted there is often an anti-academic bias in charities. A lot of what academics study is of no use to the average charity or funder, and they can’t get access to it. The What Works Centres play an important role in pulling together research and making it more accessible.

We then had a series of short ‘lightning talks’ by researchers Rob McMillan, John Mohan and Angela Ellis Paine from TSRC and James Rees, the Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the Open University. They looked at trends in the voluntary sector over recent years and the current challenges facing civil society.

In the afternoon I took part in a workshop looking at whether communities can make place-based change happen, led by Mandy Wilson and our old friend Angus McCabe from TSRC. We discussed hyper-local community action and I spoke about the work Voluntary Arts has been doing on Making Common Cause.

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Annual Conference 2016 by Robin Simpson
April 20, 2016, 4:19 pm
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Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO Chief Executive

On Monday Louise, Katy and I were among more than 600 delegates at The Brewery in London for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Annual Conference. NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington opened the conference with a ‘State of the Sector Address’ which acknowledged that these have not been easy times for voluntary organisations. Stuart said “too many people seem to have concluded that there is something wrong with charities” and “when we’ve been asked serious questions we haven’t always responded satisfactorily”. He suggested that public trust is the first, and major, challenge: our relationship with the public is by far the most important we have. While it would be too crude to talk about hostility to charities, the veil has slipped and there is an increasing willingness to ask questions. The genie is not going back in the bottle, nor should it: we cannot afford to be seen as less transparent than the public sector. Stuart emphasised the need for openness in relation to fundraising and executive pay. He said the “growing that notion that charities should be seen but not heard would be a huge waste of talent”. He is increasingly concerned about the anti advocacy clause in Government grant agreements, which he said is clearly a breach of the Voluntary Sector Compact. The best voluntary organisations combine the values of legitimacy and authenticity: charities are experts, anchored in their communities. Stuart finished by saying “we will emerge stronger”. He warned that Trustees need to think clearly about everything they are doing: “it makes money” is no longer a sufficient defence. If there are areas you are uncomfortable about, now is the time to do something about them.

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Lord O’Donnell

The second keynote presentation was by Lord O’Donnell who spoke about the positive effects of volunteering on wellbeing. The former Cabinet Secretary said local authorities are likely to see further reductions of around a quarter in this Parliament but austerity is causing more demand for charities. He outlined three steps to rebuild trust in charities:
1. we need to prove we are making the world a better place
2. we need to demonstrate how our funds are spent
3. we should try to put ourselves out of business – remove the problems rather than just solving them.
Gus O’Donnell spoke about the What Works Centre for Wellbeing – of which he was the first Chair – and the importance of articulating the wellbeing impact of charities. He said it is absolutely vital we measure wellbeing at a national level through the Office for National Statistics. He thought we should be measuring the wellbeing of children in schools. He said “these are tough times for many in our society and for many charities. We could reign in our ambitions and wait for better times but it would be disastrous. Focus on impact, be transparent, be proud and passionate about what you do, and put yourselves out of business.”

I attended two conference workshops: the first was a debate titled ‘In a fast changing world strategic plans are useless. Discuss.’ Girish Menon, Chief Executive of Actionaid UK and Srabani Sen, a senior consultant at NCVO, argued for and against the statement. This led to an interesting discussion which highlighted the value of having a clear strategy, the important role the process of developing a strategic plan can play and the danger that, without effective strategy organisations focus more on sustaining themselves rather than what they want to achieve.

The second workshop I attended was ‘Digital will transform your organisation – practical tips for leaders’. Julie Dodd, digital consultant and author of ‘The New Reality’ said digital technology affects everything. Organisations need to develop a culture of experimentation: test, make, learn. She spoke about the Open University which had found itself at a roadblock and created Future Learn, as a separate startup, which is now one of the most successful MOOC (massive open online course) platforms in the world. Helena Raven, Head of Digital at NSPCC, talked about three simple principles for digital leaders:
1. Design using data
2. Put the user first
3. Embrace agility
She said don’t confuse a lack of strategy for agility – being agile means being organised!

Robin Simpson.

 

 



Welsh Language Commissioner/WCVA Parliamentary Reception by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:46 am
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WCVA reception

The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws

On Thursday afternoon Gareth and I were at the House of Lords for a reception organised by the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) and hosted by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. This was an event for UK-wide third sector organisations operating in Wales to discuss the need to work through the medium of Welsh. Each organisation had been asked to bring two representatives – their UK Chief Executive and their Wales Director or equivalent. The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, spoke about the implications for third sector organisations of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, emphasising the principle that people in Wales can live their lives through the medium of Welsh if that is what they wish to do. She said the third sector needs to think in different ways to move forward with dignity for people in an increasingly bilingual nation. WCVA Chief Executive, Ruth Marks, said that Welsh language, culture and identity is fundamental across all our work. She spoke about the current legislative and policy environment (including the effects of the new Social Services and Wellbeing Act and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act). Ruth also discussed the Welsh Language and volunteering as well as good governance and quality systems (including Investing in Volunteers and PQASSO). She explained that there is now a Memorandum of Understanding between WCVA and the Welsh Language Commissioner and a WCVA Trustee has been appointed as the organisation’s Welsh Language Champion.

Robin Simpson.



Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:42 am
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On Wednesday I was at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London for a meeting about the proposed Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Chief Executive, Andrew Barnett, spoke about the influence of the British Council trip to Brazil in 2010 that he and I took part in. He said our experiences in Brazil had inspired him to develop the participatory arts work the Gulbenkian Foundation is now doing – of which this inquiry is an extension. The proposed inquiry (which has still to be formally approved by the Gulbenkian Trustees) will look at “the way in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of the community”. It will be a two year programme with the intention of developing a strong and growing movement of arts organisations that embrace their civic role. Wednesday’s meeting – organised in partnership with What Next? – brought together around 40 people to discuss the premise for the inquiry. We had a fascinating afternoon of discussions about civic society, civil society, roles and responsibilities, inequality, community and cultural participation. The Gulbenkian Inquiry faces some difficult challenges to pull all this together but could be incredibly valuable.

Robin Simpson.



Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 11, 2015, 11:03 am
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On Wednesday I was at NCVO in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. We had a fascinating presentation from Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health at Oldham Council about the opportunities for health commissioning arising the Government’s programme of devolution to Greater Manchester. A Public Health memorandum of understanding has now been agreed. One of the five major transformational programmes of work, specified in the MoU is “nurturing a social movement for change – enabling people to make their own informed lifestyle choices”. Alan considered how a social movement for health could be encouraged, drawing on previous examples of social movements including the campaign to make Amsterdam the bicycle capital of the world, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the creation of the FC United of Manchester football club. We discussed the role arts and culture organisations might be able to play in this development but also the role that arts and culture might play in the everyday lives of people in Greater Manchester as part of healthier lifestyles. It was a really interesting discussion which highlighted the extent to which the Cultural Commissioning Programme has moved from being simply about helping arts organisations to access funding from public sector commissioning and is increasingly looking at the role of arts and culture in the outcomes of commissioning.

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015 by Robin Simpson
November 11, 2015, 12:08 pm
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Sir John Major delivering the NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015

Sir John Major delivering the NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015

On Tuesday evening I was at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London to see Sir John Major deliver the annual NCVO Hinton Lecture. The former Prime Minister’s speech, titled ‘A Nation at Ease with Itself?’, focussed on inequality, poverty, fairness and social mobility. Addressing a voluntary sector audience, John Major reminded us that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced Gift Aid and as Prime Minister he launched the National Lottery, 21 years ago. He had observed that it had become increasingly difficult for charities to compete for Treasury funds with pensions, social security, health spending etc. He saw the National Lottery as “money from the public for the public”, “to protect the independence of charities”. To date the Lottery has distributed over £34 billion to good causes and “as intended, most of this money has gone to small local schemes”. But John Major said he worries for the future of the Lottery. It was designed as a national lottery, in effect a monopoly, to maximise returns for the designated good causes but its success has attracted rivals, such as the increasing number of ‘society lotteries’ who pay a far smaller proportion of their income back to worthy causes. John Major also spoke about the importance of small charities, at a time when there is much emphasis on charity mergers. He said small charities “offer small, anonymous acts of kindness, vital to the recipient, that may be overlooked by their larger brethren”. He thought it would be wise to expand the remit and funding of the charity commission. He talked about the poverty of loneliness, saying it is not the responsibility of government to create communities. Rather this is something that has to involve government and charities and faith groups. He said the rise in single person households is a major risk to loneliness and “the community will deal with this issue best”. You can read the full transcript of Sir John Major’s speech at: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/1114-a-nation-at-ease-with-itself.

Robin Simpson.