Paying tribute to NCVO’s history and looking to the future

Stuart Etherington (l) is joined by Frank Heuberger of BBE, Jean-Marc Roirant and David Lopez of la Ligue d’eneseignement and Baroness Jill Pitkeathley (r) by Edward Birchall’s grave.

It’s 100 years since NCVO was founded, underpinned by the gift left by a soldier who died in World War One. Edward Birchall was a leading light of the ‘guilds of help’ volunteer movement of the early 20th century, and he left the sum of £1,000 in his will to help this voluntary movement thrive.

Yesterday, I went to visit his grave, near Etaples in north west France, to pay tribute to his vision. I hope he would be proud of the achievements NCVO has made over 100 years since he made this bequest.

I was very pleased to be joined on this visit by NCVO’s counterparts from France and Germany. As well as celebrating Captain Birchall’s life and legacy and reflecting on the last 100 years of NCVO, we took the opportunity to look to the future. In particular, we looked at the future of working together across Europe, regardless of when or how the UK leaves the European Union.

With our counterparts from la Ligue de l’enseignement in France and Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (BBE) in Germany, on behalf of NCVO I yesterday signed this joint declaration:

As representatives of charities and civil society organisations across Europe, we wish to make clear our unity of purpose and our commitment to work together towards common aims.

The support and empowerment of people who need our help, the fight against disease, the protection of our natural environments, the preservation of the best of our heritage – these are the causes that unite us, and they are bigger than borders.

At a time of concerning political trends around the world, where compassion and civility are too often set aside in favour of posturing and populism, we want to send a clear signal that there are many of us still committed to work across borders and standing up for values of inclusion and cooperation.

England’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations was formed in 1919, in the aftermath of World War One, funded by the gift of a British soldier who died of his wounds. The occasion this year of its centenary anniversary is a reminder of a time, not the only time in the last century, when we were driven apart from one another.

The aim of all those involved in civil society organisations of all kinds is in one way or another to make connections, to build understanding and empathy, and improve the world around us. We value the contribution of all people, regardless of their background.

It is in the spirit of unity and cooperation that we sign issue this declaration today. Now is no time to break the links that bind us across borders. Now is the time to strengthen those links. We will, regardless of the politics within Europe, endeavour to continue to deepen our ties with one another, and work together to help charities across Europe create better, healthier, happier societies.

What next for NCVO’s international connections?

This is my last week as chief executive of NCVO. Our new chief executive, Karl Wilding, starts in the role next week. As our strategy and operations director, Susan Cordingley, wrote in July, we are due a strategic review of our work. One of Karl’s first tasks will be to get the ball rolling on this and you’ll hear more about it from him in due course.

In the meantime, to inform this process, I will be undertaking a project to examine NCVO’s European links and make recommendations on what can be done to strengthen our international work.

In my time here NCVO, and throughout our history, NCVO has usually had some level of resource dedicated to international work. Historically, we have helped with capacity building for civil society in countries around the world, under a variety of funding arrangements. We also for some time had a team working on supporting charities with European funding. In the middle of the last century, NCVO had strong links with international bodies like the UN.

While we currently have a dedicated staff member working on Brexit, and while we routinely welcome visitors who wish to learn about the sector in this country, our current European and international work is limited. Brexit is a juncture to review this. In part as any post-Brexit arrangements are likely to have major impacts in areas that will be of interest to charities, whether on the environment or consumer or human rights. And also as a matter of principle – I know from my time serving on the European Economic and Social Committee, a group that brings together civil society across Europe to inform policy-making, that there is a great deal charities in different countries can do to learn from and support one another. Whatever happens politically, we should ensure we are doing what we can to strengthen these links.

There will be a range of options for NCVO in this area, and of course a range of competing priorities. What exactly we do will be a matter for our board. In the meantime, should you have views I would be very pleased to hear from you. Please do get in touch with me via


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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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