Acevo do not represent the sector

I don’t blog much. I realised I was doing it to promote myself as a freelance trainer, and felt this was an insincere reason to be doing so. But I really let the pendulum swing too far the other way, so hopefully will be writing the occasional piece more frequently. The reason for today’s is to enable me to lower my blood pressure. I made the dreadful mistake of reading an Acevo press release trumpeting Stephen Bubb’s reaction to the election results.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his reelection. He now has a solid mandate to deliver the real change our society needs.

What is the real change our society needs? Cuts to services seeking to prevent violence against women and girls?  More foodbanks? Workfare? £12bn in welfare cuts? The demonisation of refugees and migrants?

Please, don’t get me wrong, I would be condemning a partisan approach to any party in this context – it seems deeply inappropriate. I would happily criticise such people cosying up to Labour, UKIP or the Greens, not to mention the policies and ideologies of each of them (I was going to add the Lib Dems, but you’d need to find one first). Anyway, this change involves

…accelerating the public service reform agenda to give the poorest in our society real choice and care.

Stephen Stephen Stephen. Neoliberalism is just so 90s, you know? Just to translate the sentence, ‘accelerating the public service reform agenda’ means ‘deeper cuts and more privatisation’. I’d imagine that what the poorest in society want is not so much real choice, more being less poor. Do we really want a choice in which hospital to access, or just a hospital that is well resourced with staff who aren’t demoralised?

Mr Cameron has a mandate to deliver and we expect great things.

Well, the first part of the sentence clearly means “Stop protesting”, a strange attitude for someone in the sector that encompasses campaign groups. God only knows what these ‘great things’ are. Given that last year a Mr S Bubb said the following, one has to wonder where this somewhat bilious bout of panglossianism comes from:

“We are propping up vital services which you could argue should be part of the welfare safety net,” says Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the ACEVO umbrella body for charity chief executives. “That net is being cut and we’re trying to pick up the pieces at a time when it’s incredibly hard for charities to raise money.”

Sir Stephen also warns of a regressive hardening in approaches towards those in need.

“There are Victorian attitudes emerging about the deserving and undeserving poor and I see that in the political discourse,” he says. “I also see worrying signs of the state financially withdrawing from work that they would have readily accepted as their role a decade ago.”

But it seems this was some kind of terrible aberration, as his true feelings appear to be that:

Charities and social enterprises play a hugely important role in delivering high-quality, efficient NHS services, and a policy of enabling whoever is best-placed to deliver could see them do more, to the immense benefit of NHS patients and taxpayers. We need to seize that opportunity, and leave debates about privatisation where they belong – in the last century.

If the market is such a perfect allocative tool it seems reasonable to ask why charities should remain not for profit. If they could make money we could see exactly how well they are doing – the higher the profit the more successful they are, surely¹? And of course, all volunteers would have to be paid – donating your time is so last century.

There is a strange dichotomy at the heart of the Acevo agenda. They want to be both an arm of the state, delivering public services, and on the other hand need to be pro-privatisation and pro-market as an argument to lever this para-state status.

Not so long ago the way that charities arose and operated was by seeing a social need that wasn’t being met. They would say ‘We must do something about X, give us money to do so’ – the money coming from donations, grant making trusts or local/central government grants. Now groups are service providers. They are not identifying social problems and seeking to address them – they are chasing government agendas and competing to run services. You could say that this is just ‘the current climate’, ‘the modern funding landscape’ or so on, but what has been lost (and this is not just a point for Acevo) is any sense that individual charities and the sector as whole should be constantly working to abolish itself.

People did talk about this when I joined the sector – that, say, the ultimate aim for an organisation addressing poverty shouldn’t be to simply ameliorate the worst excesses of people’s exclusion from wealth, but to end poverty altogether. It still gets mentioned, but only as lip service. It’s hard to think of an organisation outside those engaged in medical research that takes seriously the need to challenge the conditions of their own existence.

This sounds utopian, but as Oscar Wilde pointed out progress comes from the achievement of utopias, from seeing the possibility of a better future and setting out to achieve it. When Stephen Bubb imagines the future it probably looks like a permanent birthday party for himself.

One problem with the day to day attitude to Bubb in and out of the sector is that too often it focuses on his character rather than the content of his actions and pronouncements. See for example the admittedly amusing spoof blog or Private Eye’s coverage of him (I was once asked if I were the author of the blog – on truthfully denying this I was met by a shake of the head and the observation that ‘there are so many potential suspects’). He does have issues to answer for personally – there are reasons why he is loathed by NHS campaigners – but this isn’t just about Bubb, it’s his organisation that is the real problem.

It’s not as if I’m against the principle of association – of course voluntary sector bosses have the right to club together to promote their interests, as do stamp collectors and racists. What annoys me is that they claim to speak for the sector – their tagline is The leading voice of the UK’s charity and social enterprise sector. Now, I’m aware that it’s a bit of a play on words, them being leaders and all, but the arrogance is breathtaking. You are not the voice of the sector, you are the representative body of a particular sectional interest². The clue is in your name. To make matters worse, they claim to speak for the sector and then wholeheartedly endorse a political agenda that seems at odds with both the aims and immediate needs of that sector.

One also has to ask why NCVO  don’t have a higher profile. You’d think their remit would be speaking for the sector, yet they seem to lose out to Bubb and Acevo when it comes to being quoted. Are they too timid? This was always a problem with Volunteering England. Having spoken to sector journalists they need a story, and knew that VE wouldn’t be saying too much of interest. I imagine the same thing is going on here – to misquote The Big Lebowski, from the point of view of a journalist, “say what you want about the tenets of Acevo, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

Meanwhile other groups with interesting things to say about the sector – the Association for Volunteer Managers, the National Coalition for Independent Action, NAVCA – go unheard.

¹ I have actually seen this argument being made in the US by an organisation many people may assume is not for profit.

²Actually ‘representative’ would itself be a dubious claim – do their members really support this stance? Of course, it’s possible that given their dwindling membership – that they blame on cuts – that the remainder are those who haven’t borne the brunt of the assault on the sector, or stand to win though the privatising agenda. I find it hard to believe however that chief executives who have been handing out redundancies over the last few years would appreciate the cheerleading for the forces that caused this.




One response to “Acevo do not represent the sector

  1. Pingback: Why are NCVO ignoring me? | Mark Restall on Volunteering and the Big Society

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