Salute to the Irrepressible Bubb

Sir Stephen Bubb has just announced he will shortly step down as Chief Executive of ACEVO, the Association of Charity Chief Executives, after 15 years. He is not retiring and will head up an important project, but he will not be a key sector leader in the same way. My main feeling, slightly unexpected, is that I shall miss him. A lot of others in the sector will, too. Why?

I don’t know Steve well, but we have had very infrequent, amicable dealings for roughly 30 years. I have always found him warm, energetic, with a zest for life and for what he is doing, and he laughs a lot. That’s part of it.

He hurls himself into projects and opportunities heart and soul. That has a downside. He doesn’t often do nuance. He doesn’t do intellectually fastidious detachment from the enthusiasms of the sector: he embodies them. I think he was sometimes uncritically, perhaps dangerously, enthusiastic about the potential of charities as contractors to deliver public services, whereas NCVO had a more balanced view of the pros and cons. Did he encourage some politicians in their essentially instrumental view of the sector as a service provider? He was sometimes aggressively defiant in the face of criticisms of charities, when others felt it would be wiser to admit faults and the need to do better. Many is the time when those with the best interests of the sector at heart have rolled their eyeballs and shaken their heads at the next Bubb “naif” or “simplistic” public statement. The noise of teeth grinding in Government circles, in the Charity Commission, the NCVO and worldly wise politicians has been almost audible over the years – sometimes with good reason from their perspective.

But the uncomplicated nature of his commitment also has a massive upside, in tune with the unfastidious enthusiasm of many charities themselves. That is why he has been such a popular leader for so many ACEVO members. That is also why he built up ACEVO into a much more potent organisation than it used to be before his arrival. If anyone thought Steve’s strong advocacy of the sector’s service delivery role meant that he took an instrumental view of their purpose, they should be disabused when they heard his sometimes lone voice protesting passionately against any attack on charities’ right to campaign. And his vociferous, lone contributions to debate cannot be seen in isolation. There were plenty of charity people willing to apologise and commit to change: perhaps his defiant defensiveness was a useful foil and additional element in the chemistry?

For example, when Eric Pickles first launched the noxious anti-advocacy clause relating to his Department’s grants, NCVO chose the inside track and worked hard behind the scenes to challenge the move. Steve went public and denounced Pickles in immoderate language on the front page of The Times. The usual tut-tutting ensued from the worldly wise. But in hindsight I am grateful to Steve for his demarche. It complemented the inside track taken by others. It signalled to the sector itself and to wider public opinion that this was not something to be taken lying down, that a key sector leader was willing to denounce it publicly, loudly.  Sometimes you need both approaches. When the inside track did not work, the NCVO lion is now roaring as loudly as ACEVO.

Like most formidable leaders, there is more to Steve than you might assume. When I was working for the Archbishop of Canterbury, he turned up with, of all people, the Anglican Bishop of Rangoon in Burma, with whom he had a significant contact. Steve is intuitively closer to the huge religious part of our sector than some other sector leaders. Was this part of his motivation in getting so close, and so supportively, to many Muslim charities in recent years, and helping to give them voice?

Bubb is a lovely name, with apt associations with bubbles. Steve Bubb is forever coming up with bubbling ideas for future initiatives. Kick him in the teeth: he comes back with more. And our sector is reliant on that sort of indomitable, bubbling energy. If you condemn, tut-tut, poor cold water, he just bubbles back as before. Like bubbles, like the charity sector itself, whatever the rough edges and lack of nuance or political calculation, he is irrepressible. That, above all, is why we are going to miss him as one of the sector’s leaders.

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