Charities have not lost sight of what is important

Stephen Bubb
This article is more than 11 years old
A modern and enterprising third sector gives good value and the best service to those in need, says Stephen Bubb

Last modified on Wed 17 Jun 2009 18.08 EDT

Adam Sampson, the former chief executive of the homeless charity Shelter, argues that with growth and professionalisation Britain's charity sector "could lose its sense of mission", and that "there is a danger that what makes it distinctive, valuable or essential may get eroded" (High-minded ambition, 3 June).

I identified with much of his description of the life of the CEOs today. Many charity heads will feel the same - rebels of the 1970s, consciously outside a system they wanted to change, now "suited and booted", "earning close to six-figure salaries and enjoying all the trappings of an executive lifestyle", networking with politicians and worrying about how to manage growing organisations. How far we now seem from our romantic past.

But this is not a sign that we have lost sight of what is important. Quite the opposite. As Sampson says, "charities are not set up to benefit staff" or for their CEOs to feel good about themselves. They exist for one reason - to help those most in need. I agree that, as he says, problems like homelessness are too important for the "amateur, chaotic and physically squalid night shelters of the 1970s" that he remembers. This is why the mission of my organisation, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), is a modern and enterprising third sector.

While it cannot be denied that engaging with government makes compromise inevitable, is it not better to be at the table influencing policy rather than outside the door shouting? Do we not need the "seat at the establishment table" that he mentions in order for our beneficiaries to be heard?

I agree, as Sampson argues, that there "has been a price to pay", and it throws up challenges we must address. He says that "as the contract culture grows [bidding and delivering on government contracts], there is a temptation to measure success with reference to delivery of contract performance rather than value to client". This is true, and we must continue to push for the reform of how we fulfil contracts. As the sector grows, our greater clout will help us to do that.

Sampson does admit that "the contract culture has driven efficiency". He is right, it has helped us sharpen our act. It ensures that taxpayers get good value and that beneficiaries get the best service. It has moved charities away from juvenile assumptions that just because we are doing good and providing quality services we do not need to be tested.

We must hold our nerve. The reform of public service provision will require charities to be more business-minded than ever. While it will pose great challenges to the sector, it will also provide an opportunity for those who embrace the changes to flourish. This is why Acevo is working with government departments, thinktanks and charity leaders to make sure they seize this opportunity.

Sampson says that "the professional, organised and well-maintained hostels [for the homeless] of today overrides any temptation towards nostalgia", but he worries that the unique identity of charities is changing. He shouldn't worry. Identity is not what matters. It is our mission and our beneficiaries that count.

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