Monday, 25 January 2010


More and more media stories are starting to focus on the international aid response in Haiti. Today the chief executive of the DEC Brendan Gormley has rebutted accusations in the Lancet that aid agencies were “jostling for position”. The head of the Italian response to the L’Aqulia earthquake last year has also criticised the “vanity parade” of the aid community.

There are several reasons for this increasing focus. Criticism of the speed of response is not surprising given the overwhelming need of the people of Haiti and the close attention of the wider world. No response could possibly have been rapid enough.

In addition, the army of journalists in Haiti need stories. Witness the varying hysterical reports last week about the rise of looting and mob violence in the wake of the earthquake. (More down to earth reports pointed out that there was in fact less street violence following the quake than before.) Aid not getting through makes for a great story too.

However these stories do have the potential to damage reputations. It is at times like this when our sector comes under increased scrutiny that we must strive for the highest standards in accountability and transparency.

Haiti poses very particular challenges for aid organisations because of the void of leadership and infrastructure. Doubtless there have been avoidable delays and doubtless the efforts could be better coordinated. The BBC has run a story explaining how the DEC prioritise their work, and usefully challenges the notion of "jostling for position". But it is imperative that the organisations on the ground must do all they can to communicate effectively what they are doing, the challenges they are facing and the difference they have been able to make.

There is varying amounts of detail from the websites of DEC members about their work in Haiti. Some say very little about how they have been mobilizing or what money has been spent on. Others are much more detailed. I was particularly interested in Merlin (as a very good friend of mine works for them in Liberia). I thought their updates were good and they have also been using twitter effectively. I am also following one of their staff (@AlexforMerlin) from Haiti.

It’s easier than ever for charities to communicate effectively with donors and other stakeholders in almost real time. While we mustn’t get caught in a game of responding to every negative press report, we must strive to tell the stories of our work as fully and as honestly as possible. The international aid community has generally been ahead of much of the domestic sector in terms of transparency, it needs to continue to push the boundaries.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Compacted Compact

Since the launch of the refreshed Compact in December the voluntary agreement between the sector and government has come in for some serious stick.

This week an open letter from the National Coalition for Independent Action was sent to my boss and to the leaders of the other main national umbrella bodies. It called the Compact a “fig leaf for unequal power relationships”, and declares that the relationship between the state and the sector is “in crisis right now”.

At the same time a number of other key players in the sector have been criticising the value of the Compact; the high profile breach by the very same government department which is supposed to champion the agreement hasn’t helped. Two national umbrella bodies, the Community Sector Coalition and Voice 4 Change England have expressed their dissatisfaction with the revised version.

It is true that in the twelve years since the compact was first envisaged it has not completely changed the world. Statutory agencies still sometimes treat the sector badly. However memories in our sector are short. The Compact has made a huge difference to the relationship between government and the sector if for no other reason than it has created a common agenda for the two parties to develop their relationships.

A document alone can’t change anything. It is what people do with it that counts. Where the Compact has made a difference, it has done so because it has raised the profile of the issues which matter and forced them to be discussed and confronted. Every top tier local authority in the country has its own compact with its own local third sector and these have been negotiated in each area, highlighting the key concerns which need to be addressed. What has made a difference is people who would never have been in a room together before now recognising that they need to work together and discussing how to overcome the barriers to better partnership working. The Compact has framed issues such as longer term contracts, accessible consultations and full cost recovery allowing them to be championed.

The reach of the Compact is something unique to the UK. Through ACEVO’s international work in talking to sector leaders around the world, the idea that government accepts what needs to change for a better partnership with the third sector, even at a policy level, and is willing to make clear commitments to improve that relationship causes jaws to drop. The Compact has been copied in a number of countries around the world including Canada and Australia. Sometimes we don’t know how good we have it.

But the Compact and the structures around it must continue to be developed in order for us to achieve the goal of better relationships between the sector and government. The refreshed document is a great improvement because it makes the principles clearer and leaves more room for local compacts to negotiate the issues specific to that area. It is also more accessible for commissioners to read and quickly understand the considerations which they must have for working with the sector.

The Compact does need greater teeth and ACEVO has long championed the case for a statutory footing for the Commission of the Compact allowing the ombudsman the power to investigate breeches and require statutory bodies to change their practices. We are pushing hard for this change in the run up to the election. It would of course also be able to investigate breaches of the Compact by the sector. We’re not beyond reproach ourselves and it would be a fascinating if a case was brought by a statutory body. We have to live up to our commitments as much as government does.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Progressive Governance

Dorothy Dalton, the former and first chief executive of ACEVO runs the widely respected governance magazine. The publication and website is a great resource to trustees and organisations of all sizes around the country.

In her most recent editorial she has tackled the issue of remunerating trustees and establishing unitary boards. This is, according to Dalton, “wholly inappropriate”. I’m afraid we disagree.

Dalton is writing in response to Kevin Carey’s recent speech at our annual conference, and the subsequent establishment of a progressive governance network to support organisations who wish to reform their governance structures.

In making her case she cites the financial stresses under which organisations currently find themselves, and that some unitary boards have also resulted in poor decision making as witnessed by us all in causing the financial crisis. She discredits unitary boards in the NHS by citing one example of a board who oversaw a dirty hospital.

All of these are inexcusable failures and in the case of our banks the repercussions have been monumental. But the fact that the implications of those governance failures have been so widespread says more about the power of banks than it does about the structure of governance which failed, and does not in one sweep discredit a governance framework which has prevailed in the private sector for more than a century. Lots and lots of third sector organisations are badly run too – but their failures are less widely felt.

Every week I speak to ACEVO members who have thoroughly dysfunctional boards, with in-fighting common and chairs not willing to take control. One board hadn’t had a formal meeting for nine years, yet the organisation continued to operate. In these cases it just so happened that publicity hasn't found them but I am in no doubt that it is just a matter of time before an incident like this in our sector is front page news.

And to tackle the issue of money, clearly paying trustees costs. But the decisions boards take make or break organisations. Avoiding bad investment strategy, or a misjudged budget, would easily outweigh the costs of modestly remunerating your trustees thousands of times over.

No governance system is perfect, all have flaws and in human nature things will always go wrong. Dalton criticises ACEVO for opening up the argument about alternatives to the status quo. Let’s first be clear about ACEVO’s line on this because we are often misrepresented on this point. We do not believe that every third sector organisation should pay its trustees or have a unitary board. For very many this won’t be appropriate.

However we believe that third sector organisations should have the option to explore alternative models if they feel that this is the right decision for them in order to meet the needs of their beneficiaries. (Incidentally Dalton alludes in her article to whether or not such payment is in the interest of the beneficiaries or in the interest of individual board members. The latter would certainly be a serious alligation, and I am keen to know whether there is hard evidence of where charities have tried to make such changes for any reason other than the good of the organisation’s beneficiaries.)

It is a fundamental tenet of good governance to review the way in which the board operates and discuss whether things could be done better. It would be negligent for a board not to consider the question of whether its structures are fit for purpose. The fact that it is incredibly difficult to change a charity’s governance structure to allow paid trustees or unitary boards means that organisations do not in practice have the opportunity to reasonably explore these other options. I know of a number of ACEVO members whose boards would like to make these changes but are simply not prepared to fork out for the legal fees and time in negotiating with the Commission to make their case. In some cases members have reported that the Commission has refused to allow such arrangements without clear feedback on the reasons.

Dalton is quite right that no one should force a governance structure upon any other organisation. However the reality is that the status quo is being forced upon many ACEVO members and their boards who firmly believe that they would be better run if they adopted a different structure. By Dalton’s own logic they should be allowed to do so.

Monday, 4 January 2010

New year and all that...

I haven’t gone in for new year’s resolutions this time. The only one I’ve ever really kept was three years ago when I resolved to read one novel every month. If you average it out over a full year I can claim success. However I fear fervent promises to myself to join a gym will not meet with immediate success. We’ll play the long game there too.

But 2010 will be a big year with some big questions. Who will win the election? (If today’s news is anything to go by I suspect by Easter we will not care.) Will the recovery finally start, and what will it mean for the beneficiaries of organisations in the sector? And will anything useful emerge from the failure of the Copenhagen summit?

The answers to these questions are a little outside of my gift. However, I’ve been given some pretty clear goals by my boss for 2010. We discussed these at length just before the Christmas break and the key themes included:

  1. Developing the ImpACT Coalition with Liam Cranley our Head of ImpACT. The movement, committed to improving accountability, clarity and transparency in the sector, has huge potential. We will realise that potential and take the campaign to the next level.
  2. Continuing to diversify and grow our income, working with Orli Gorenski our Head of Business Development.
  3. Working closely with the Board and with senior management colleagues to develop ACEVO’s strategy as we move through a significant period of change.
  4. Connecting ACEVO members to networks around the globe including in particular North America and Europe through our colleagues in Euclid Network.
  5. Stephen is also keen for me to, as he put it, develop my presence. More opportunities for public speaking will form part of that.

I am really fortunate to lead a great team of staff, and it has been a fascinating transition for me during 2009 as I moved into my current role. I am really excited about the challenges which lie ahead this year.

But none of these compare to Emma, my PA, who will be scaling Mount Kilimanjaro at the end of January in aid of Scope. We’re all hoping that her phone will work on the way up to keep us all updated on her progress. You can still donate here.