In warmly welcoming the appointment of Helen Stephenson to the role of Chief Executive of the Charity Commission it is vital to ensure that what looks like a small but significant step forward is not the only Swallow of the period ahead. Charities have had a very difficult time since the the current Chairman of the Commission, William Shawcross came into to his role. His appointment was deeply unsuitable and political, made by David Cameron whose friends and family move in the same circles as Shawcross does. Tory supporter Shawcross has spoken out on numerous occasions and displayed his ignorance of the sector as a whole and throughout his tenure the board has also been made up, almost exclusively of people who share his social and political views and who are just as out of touch with the sector as Shawcross is, despite the fact that together they are supposed to be the sectors regulator. It is because of this that wide gap that the role of CEO has become much more critical in bridging the gap between the Senior Team and the sector who also look to the Commission for support when the Conservative Government and the media sets about blaming charities for what is wrong in society. If the Chair does not understand the sector, then we need a CEO that does.
According to the Government website that published the announcement that Helen was to be the next CEO “Helen has extensive experience of senior leadership across the public and voluntary sectors, having previously served as Director and Deputy Director of the Office for Civil Society, and has filled senior roles at the Big Lottery Fund and the Shaftesbury Society. She has also, until recently, been chair and trustee of the National Childbirth Trust, and was part of the Advisory Council of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.” It is important that as part of her new role she persuades the Government to stop exaggerating when it comes to matters relating to charities that it clearly does not understand. Her Development Manager role at Shaftesbury Society in 1999 which she held for just over 2 years ended over 15 years ago and the charity was a small but effective agency. Few in the voluntary sector would describe this experience as a senior leadership role within our sector. Equally no one in the charity sector that I know would describe the Big Lottery Fund as part of the sector. There is great value in Helens role as part of the advisory board of the NCVO and her short time as a board member and Chair of NCT, however as she will already know the charity sector includes over 166,000 charities, most of which do not recognise or relate to the NCVO and 164,000 of which are much smaller than NCT and therefore face a very different set of challenges. Her other notable experience is as Trustee of the Big Society Trust, one of Camerons failed charitable experiments. That in reality will be seen as a toxic connection in the eyes of many within the sector.
Ironically and sadly the one thing the Government press release failed to emphasis is that when she was working for Shaftesbury, that may have given Helen exposure to the sorts of start up and small charities that are constantly ignored by Governments when they try to engage with the sector in a meaningful way. I recall that this was about the time when I first came across Shaftesbury Society which has since merged with John Grooms and is now called Livability. It was a very helpful resource for charities I was involved in and indeed still have links to. I have sat through far too many meetings when the Government of the day has been calling for charities to scale up. The fact is that our strength as a nation is the many thousands of charities that can get into spaces and places that scaled up organisations will nearly always miss. If I was writing a press release about Helen Stephenson I would have promoted that element of her experience, not pretended she had extensive experience of senior leadership across our sector. Along with all of the data that is published, I know from her LinkedIn profile that Helen knows some people who are very well placed to advise her on matters relating to other charities. I hope she will call on those contacts in the early part of her work.
We are now faced with the next big task, Shawcross is due to retire in January and his replacement will almost certainly be appointed by the new Tory Government. Will they have the guts to appoint someone who is more critical of them than of the sector who he or she is supposed to oversee? We need someone who will fight the corner of charities of all sizes and areas of interest. The only charitable experience Shawcross had was of large charities in the Arts sector. Our society is now so much deeper in a mess of social collapse thanks to Cameron and Osborne than was the case 5 years ago when William was appointed. We need someone who will recognise that when foodbanks and similar areas of social provision are growing at an obscene rate, it is time to challenge the Government for its lack of provision, not treat the foodbanks as though they are part of the problem. Perhaps Helen Stephenson will utilise her experience from her days at Shaftesbury as well as he time at NCVO and NCT and persuade the Government to find a new Chairman and some replacement board members who really do understand the sector as a whole. As she is reported to have said “The charitable sector plays a crucial role in our national life and I am delighted to be joining the Charity Commission at this important time.” Let us hope she is heard and listened to by the incoming Government.