Friday, 27 November 2009

I thoroughly enjoyed the DSC Social Change awards last night.

DSC is an organisation which has a rather different outlook from ACEVO. We have been known to disagree on the odd issue such as whether or not charities should seek to become more involved in the delivery of public services, or whether it should be possible to pay trustees. But as with most third sector spats, we agree far more often than we disagree and have many of the same goals.

Debra Allcock Tyler gave a rousing speech before the awards themselves. I found myself agreeing with almost everything that she said: government should trust us and our capacity to innovate, that the state can never solve complex social problems on its own, that the public hasn’t engaged with the sector’s role in delivering services and that is a risk for public trust in us, that we must maintain our independence when delivering publically funded services.

I didn’t agree, however, with her critique of large charities. Her analogy was one of the elephant and the ant. The ant knows the details of the ground in much greater detail than the elephant, implying that larger charities cannot know as much as small ones about what is happening on the front line in communities.

This doesn’t sound to me like any large charity I know. I have spent today as an external panel member interviewing potential new trustees for a well known very large charity. The passion of direct experience with which the candidates spoke, and the very apparent connection between front-line experience and the strategic governance of one of the UK’s largest charities was striking. Size does of course bring challenges but one shouldn’t under-estimate the ability and skill of the leaders of the largest charities (both executive and non-executive) to connect on-the-ground experience to high level strategy, and then to their significant ability to affect change.

While at the awards I also enjoyed my conversation with Ben Wittenberg (DSC’s Head of Policy) about the OTS’s cutting of campaigning grants. It was an astonishing decision from the department which is currently tasked with leading the refreshing of the Compact within government. Also if you are going to upset a group of charities, picking on the best campaigners in the country is probably not a good idea. The case is being well championed by DSC, Compact Voice, NCVO and others.

The affected organisations learned of this decision three weeks after having received a grant letter from OTS confirming the success of their application. Now in my experience grant letters are the end of the process. You can go ahead and hire staff, buy equipment or make all the commitments you need to make on the back of a grant letter. Except clearly you can’t.

I wrote a piece a few months ago about the relative merits of grants and contracts in the third sector. One of the advantages of contracts is that it gives groups an equal legal recourse when things go wrong. Contracts aren’t appropriate for all types of funding relationships as I spell out in the article, but you have to wonder if the campaigners had had a contract rather than a grant letter, would OTS have been able to ditch them at the last minute?

One more thing for a Friday afternoon, great article in the Times today on charity accountability from the Finance Director at Oxfam. This is exactly the kind of message we are promoting through the sector with the ImpACT Coalition which is now hosted at ACEVO. Lots of exciting developments will be taking place now that Liam Cranley is in post as Head of ImpACT. Watch this space!

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