Stuart Etherington’s Letter to the Voluntary Sector, 2014

Hannah Kowszun was NCVO’s Marketing & Membership Manager until July 2014. Her blog posts have been archived here.

Ahead of Evolve, the annual event for the voluntary sector on Monday, our chief executive, Stuart Etherington, has written a letter to the sector, setting out what he sees as some of the big issues facing the sector today.

In his letter, Sir Stuart says charities have drawn on their reserves of inner strength to see them through tough economic times. These aren’t over, but other challenges await. Among the most important, he argues, is public trust in charities: charities themselves need to set high standards and be seen to live by them.

Sir Stuart also weighs up this government’s record on the voluntary sector, and talks about what we think priorities for the next government should be. So what do you think?

Read in full Stuart Etherington’s letter to the sector (PDF 92KB)

We’re very keen to get your thoughts – what do you see as the big challenges at the moment? What are the big opportunities? How can NCVO help you make the biggest difference for the people you work for?

Let me know in the comments, or using #ncvoletter , or come find me or my team at Evolve – we’d love to discuss it.

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18 Responses to Stuart Etherington’s Letter to the Voluntary Sector, 2014

  1. For us it is the issue of challenging poor practice, particularly in commissioning of services and working with the local VCSE around inclusion in planning, service delivery etc through localism, best value and the Social Value Act. Also, time and again we are seeing good national bid writers producing tenders for national organisations – who can afford that level of expertise, to come and sweep up the services that would normally be delivered by local voluntary organisations. The government need to put some systems in place to protect the local voluntary and community sector and to help us thrive in my opinion. Some mechanisms for redress which will not mean that we have to invest reserves in judicial reviews or that we are seen as ‘trouble makers’? Thanks!

  2. Andrew Nixon says:

    Overall I agree with the sentiments expressed. The voluntary sector will never be a univerasll one size fits all and that is what makes small local(often under-funded) charities like ours special. My feeling around maintaining an ethical and open attitude to funding is something most small charities do any way, its the big boys and girls that need telling! The ones that spend millions (of public? money) on cringe worthy advertising campaigns and employ groups of people to scour the streets in their name trying to get our cash. My town has a small high street, sometimes on some days I need to nip out a couple of times a day and get approched many times by the same people for money. As a result there are a number of big charities I will never support ever again! If this is true of me, an open fairminded indivudual prone to bouts of over the top tolerance and stoicism I would imagine many other folks will feel even more strongly about this way of gathering money! Same with executive pay, this surely affects a tiny minority as I don’t knwo anyone in the sector localy who earns a fortune and certainly people like me that are loaded with responsibility as fundraiser as well as day to day operations manager volunteer supporter recruiter and retainer (remaining a volunteer as well) etc etc with all that it entails have a problem with getting to grips with over the top salaries in the charity sector. One imagibes again it is the big boys and girls where this could be an issue and again there needs to be some restraint and someone or a body willing to encourage those folks to take stock and to put the brakes on.

  3. Dennis Abbott says:

    My organisations problem is money, or rather the lack of it. We are a very small charity employing no one but serving the community where I live by providing a venue for their activities. Because of what we do, where we do it, and the groups who we do it with/for, I have been unable to secure any substantial grants to renovate our 103 year old building and bring it up to 21st Century spec. NCVO does not appear to be aimed at small people , but the corporate and large charities with boards and salaries.

    • Hannah Kowszun says:

      Dennis, thank you so much for your comment. This is a view that emerged as part of the research we conducted earlier in the year. Because NCVO membership is open to all sizes of voluntary sector organisation, it can be tricky sometimes to be relevant to all these different types of stakeholder.

      For the smaller organisations, among other things, we provide guidance on things like writing fundraising bids and running events, which can be used by both volunteers and trustees. A few years ago we published a guide to sustainable funding specifically aimed at trustees for those organisations that rely more on the time and energy of their board:

      It can be tricky to find funding for building renovations, particularly where a building is currently habitable rather than one that has fallen into disuse. Have you thought of exploring crowdfunding as an option? Crowdfunding is well suited to capital projects, as there is a tangible benefit which can be shared once the project is complete. As part of a crowdfunding initiative you can ‘reward’ levels of funding by individuals from something like a name on a plaque in the finished building to an exclusive invitation to the open day. Here is one of several crowdfunding sites that you could use:

  4. I think there needs to be a clearer vision from the sector about collective purpose. The last clear articulation that i heard from Sir Stuart was: ‘transformation not transfer’. It beautifully set out an ambitious bottom line but was always very much a response to the agenda of others.

    Another clear vision that i like, that incidentally takes charge of collective reputation, is very much from another era. The eventual founder of the Children’s Society, Eglantyne Jebb (great name), in a study of cambridge, set out a clear vision of how and why we work with others: “common effort for the common ideal” ( What makes this practical, is the focus on something, some place. For me, the important element is being able to start that discussion, think collectively.

    and that Linked to the letter and Leonie’s comment, we’ve been looking at the importance of place in terms of thinking about the sector’s purpose. For us, clarity of purpose, as a sector, will better control reputation

    We think place (very much missing from national policy, especially where the sector is concerned) needs putting back. Place puts public service delivery, conversations about what ‘good growth’ looks like and who it benefits into context; it links us back as a sector to the people who own us and for whom we’re trying to work.

    Thriving Places:

    • Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

      Warren – we’ve talked about that collective purpose and vision in our strategy at I reckon its about making a bigger difference, for public benefit. In the case of services, that may well be about transformation; but in other areas that might be about more iterative improvement (campaigning effectiveness?)

      On the issue of clarity of purpose and reputation – yes, agree. I’d suggest its also about clarity of means, values and identity. A challenge for the sector as it has grown and its boundaries have blurred is maintaining that collective identity.

  5. Dear Mr Etherington:
    Only two constraints are experienced by this charity. The first is the time wasted by people (usually organisations) we set out to help. This can include a failure to read the conditions under which we operate.
    The second is the time needed for fund-raising and the lack of volunteers to fulfil such a task. Fortunately, I have always believed in keeping enough in investments to produce some of the income needed by the trust to carry out its work.Yours sincerely, IVOR R.HOSGOOD MBE/Chairman-Secretary.
    PS: Is it possible to use a large typface (eg, 18-point) for your ‘Comment’ box? My eyesight is not what it was!

  6. Don Lawton says:

    My first comment relates to the e-mail address at the top of your communications. I have recently experienced severe problems with malware, resulting in my now being very selective in which e-mails I open. Rather than your correspondents name followed by NCVO, could you put NCVO first please. Our concern at our village hall is the ever increasing cost burdens placed on small organisations by quangos. e.g. PRS and PPL. The introduction of PPL doubled our cost for less service. Also, the proposed changes in Licensing charges will prove crippling, not only to us, but to organisations wishing to hire our facility. Also, the proposed changes in Licensing charges will prove crippling, not only to us, but to organisations wishing to hire our facility.
    Thirdly, it is most galling when trying to improve the facilities we offer to our local community, to have to raise 20% more than the actual cost to meet the VAT requirement.
    Don Lawton

  7. Mrs Afsan Burrow says:

    Is there any way we can get help to fundraise for the annual hire of a place please?
    Our organisation has been operating on Saturdays in a high school environment. The price for hiring the place has been going up steadily and is becoming unaffordable by a small voluntary organisations like us.

  8. Susan Walton says:

    My bugbear is the fact that charities like the one I work for who have no ‘trading’ activity effectively end up paying 20% more for everything because we cannot recover VAT. I am sure our donors would be horrified to think that a fair chunk of their donations to us go into the Exchequer’s coffers because we have to pay VAT we cannot recover. It is about time charities were made exempt from this tax.

    • Andrew O’Brien says:

      Thanks for highlighting the issue of VAT and charities, Susan.

      NCVO recently responded to a consultation on VAT by the European Commission, as VAT is an issue which is dealt with at a European level. We highlighted the issues that VAT raise for charities are very important and that steps need to be taken to reduce the unfairness for charities.

      We are actively looking at ways to try and redress this issue such as a uniform system of refunds so that charities can get back the tax that they pay through VAT.

      We would be really interested in more feedback on how VAT is affecting charities, so please feel free to email me ( if you would like to discuss this in more detail.

  9. We are a relatively small environmental society (about 500 individual members. We are not a registered charity. We considered becoming one and decided against it.
    We are too small to be able to pay admin staff and this puts a very heavy load on our committee members. This loading deters recruitment to the committee to such an extent that it could mean the society’s demise.
    We are – without boasting – well respected in our community for the services we offer to the extent that our volunteers are in danger of becoming overloaded.
    So, ‘Respect’ we have already – but without ‘Resources’ we will struggle to survive. Our demise would be a severe blow to the West Berkshire environment.

  10. Well said DICK GREENAWAY. When it comes to commissioning, drum roll the red carpet roll-out for big organisations while red tape roll out for small but impact achieving small charities who eventually the big charities turn to, most small organisation are grassroot organisation with local knowledge of people and businesses needs with outcome based intervention solutions as such client-based. Life is too short, no room for drama and moan, every one has something to learn from one another give everyone a chance.