We have been served notice that a very large, distinctive tree in the civil society forest will fall later this year. Sir Stuart Etherington is to step down from his post as Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) for the last 25 years.
Under Stuart, the independence of the NCVO has been greatly strengthened. It is no longer dependent on Government grants, and a much larger proportion of its income and legitimacy depends on its massively expanded membership. It is financially relatively stable. It is well organised, with a talented staff. You will not always agree with what Stuart or the NCVO say, but you will always treat them with respect, because it is always thought through carefully (possibly unless the Chair occasionally breaks loose, enhancing the gaiety of the nation). In a fractious sector, NCVO’s status and importance is very widely recognised: quite an achievement.
Stuart is a very shrewd analyst, an exceptional mind, enriched by so much experience of the sector in interaction with other key institutions and wider social trends. I have always been impressed by that analytical, independent-minded thoughtfulness, ever since I first came across him as Chief Executive of RNIB. He also has a good political nose and a rugged sense of what is deliverable. He will pounce on opportunities for a strategic re-think that is calculated to strengthen the sector – think of the Nicholas Deakin report, for example, or the seminal working group under Winifred Tumim that put public benefit on the map as the key to understanding the obligations of charities, the review of charity fundraising when it was in a mess, and more recently the review of charity taxation and charity ethics.
He is good at relationships with successive Ministers for Civil Society, and on the whole with the Charity Commission even when they and NCVO disagree, which they ought to from time to time. Sir Stuart is a powerful character with strong views, and like a gigantic mongoose will rush to defend his pups in the shape of the interests and key positions of his organisation, or the wider sector, against threats. That means there are always those who may be smarting from a forceful put-down. Sometimes, the sector needs, and has, leaders of both sexes who can be bruisers at times: Stuart is one. But in his case it is all done with the best interests of the sector at heart.
Like all of us, he has faults, but I think he knows better than anyone else what they are. It is impossible to run the NCVO, with all the complex pressures on it, without upsetting some of us occasionally and without sometimes making a judgement call that doesn’t work out. Again, he knows what they are.
But the crucial point about Stuart, even more than his brilliant abilities, is this: beneath his formidable, occasionally pompous image beats a big heart imbued with the love of the voluntary sector.
Every great tree has its time. But it will nevertheless be sad to see this one go.