Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Jane Ide chats with civil society leaders about their professional experiences, challenges, wellbeing, and their journeys in the sector.
In this episode, Jane talks to Sarah Vibert, chief executive of NCVO, the largest membership body for charities in the UK.
(…) at the end of day, it’s not a partnership between two organisations, it’s a partnership between the people who work in these organisations. So my team and your team, and you and me and our chairs, you know, all those different levels. Those relationships need to be strong and nurtured and continually, I guess, renewed and built upon.Sarah Vibert
Jane Ide 0:03
Hi, I’m Jane Ide, Chief Executive of ACEVO. And you’re listening to Leadership Worth Sharing. Join me while I chat to civil society leaders about their professional experiences, challenges, wellbeing and their journeys in the sector.
Hi, everybody, this is Jane Ide, chief executive of ACEVO. And this is the first of our outdoor walk and talk podcast, is a bit of an experiment. We’ve not done this before. But I’m joined here in beautiful sunny York, right next to the river by the lovely Sarah Vibert, chief executive of NCVO. Sarah.
Sarah Vibert 0:50
Hi, Jane. It’s great to be here on this lovely sunny day.
Jane Ide 0:53
Thank you. And thank you so much for being willing to be the guinea pig for this because this is something we’ve not tried before, actually doing an outside recording. So we’re hoping that it’ll work. So Sarah, I asked you when we were planning this to choose somewhere that was important to you, that you enjoyed being out and about and walking around. And you came up with York. So the first obvious question has got to be why? What is it that so special about York in your life?
Sarah Vibert 1:21
So I guess York has been like a kind of, I guess, crossroads to quite a lot of my life. So I grew up in Scarborough, Scarborough is about 45 minutes on the train to the end of the line from York. And so York was kind of a bit of a destination, really. It was like where we came shopping, or as a teenager where we came on nights out. And then I guess, when I went off to university, you’re you went through York on the train to get up to Durham. And then eventually, I actually lived in York for a little bit. Very early in my career I worked at North Yorkshire county council and made York my home, not for very long. And so yeah, it’s always so lovely to come back up to Yorkshire and getting off the train today hearing all the Yorkshire accents. Yeah, definitely feels like I’ve come back home and I get a bit more Yorkshire too.
Jane Ide 2:09
Speaking as a proud, proud adopted northerner, I know exactly what you mean, there is something very special about this part of the world. And being away from the Metropolitan, shall we say it’s, it’s it’s a nice place. We’re just being… we’re just watching a leisure cruise going past us with an awful lot of cost people, we ought to be waving…. Nobody’s waving.
Sarah Vibert 2:31
But you know, it’s funny actually.As I said that about Yorkshire accent. I probably spent a lot of my early life, earlier career, actually trying to hide a Yorkshire accent. I think that’s quite interesting that I used to do that. Yeah, I do remember. Like, yeah, going off to uni. And everybody was very posh. And I was, had a Yorkshire accent. And then similarly, like, when I first moved to London, I remember going to a job interview, I should say, not in the charity sector. And one of the men interviewing me, as soon as I opened my mouth stood up and said, See, I told you, she’d have a Yorkshire accent and walked out. But yeah, these days, I’m very proud to have a Yorkshire accent. Even though I’ve lost it a little bit over the years. Being an adopted southerner.
Jane Ide 3:12
That is really… well, I have to say, I don’t think you have lost it, and you can be very proud of it. But that is such a bizarre experience. And I think given, you know, we’ve been talking a lot in the sector over the last six to nine months, I suppose about class in the sector. And even as I say that, I can hear my own Yorkshire accent, which is an adopted, one I’ve developed over many years of living in this world. But when we talk about class in the sector, and actually those prejudices, and those barriers, whether real or perceived, whether they’re actually there or whether we just feel they are and the challenges that those bring into developing our careers. So so I’m quite interested to hear a little bit more about that. How did you, how did you develop your career from that point early on, worrying about what your accent was, was doing? So where did you where did that journey take you?
Sarah Vibert 4:02
Yeah, so my very first job in the sector was actually my very first job out of university. I worked with (…), I’m so proud to say work there. I loved that job. Worked for two amazing bosses. It makes such a difference. And yeah, it was really keen to pursue a career in the charity sector, but actually found it, it was it was very hard to get into. And my first job was an admin assistant. I was really clear I wanted to get into a leadership role. So actually, that then brought me back up to Yorkshire. Because I did the local government graduate scheme, which still exists today, which is designed to I guess, train the future chief executives, local authorities. Should say I didn’t really like working in local government, found it very bureaucratic. There was far too many rules and procedures for me. And so yeah, once I’d finished the scheme, which was brilliant, it was a brilliant grounding in all aspects of management. Very quickly, went back to London, by the mayor’s office, and then went back into the voluntary sector. So yeah, I was really clear where I wanted my career to go. But I guess just wanted to make sure I’ve got the right grounding for a kind of future leadership career. So yeah, and then yeah, worked in a number of different charities. Went to In Kind Direct, which is an amazing product giving charity, that was my first kind of leadership team role. And then moved into the health sector, which I guess is still kind of holds a very special place in my heart, worked at Epilepsy Society for five years. And my brother actually had epilepsy. So it was a cause really close to my heart. It’s actually quite hard working in organisation where you’ve got that kind of personal connection sometimes. But yeah, absolutely loved it. And then went on to lead the Neurological Alliance, which was my first chief exec job. Quite different to this one, much, much smaller organisation £200,000 income, three staff. So yeah, but I loved working there. And there’s something really amazing about working in a small charity, you know, where you literally do everything from kind of washing the dishes to kind of, you know, speaking on Radio 4, and I guess actually, it’s, it’s served me really well for the NCVO CEO role, because, you know, 90% of our members are small organisations. And so I guess I’ve got kind of that empathy with what’s really like to work in a tiny organisation. And to a lot of organisations, £200,000 is probably quite big, too. I mean, a really small end of the sector.
Jane Ide 6:18
I think I know exactly what you mean, I think there is that sense in… for any of us that are leading a membership organisation, we can’t possibly know the ins and outs of every organisation or every member that we’re there to support, but having that sense of context and having that sense of scale, and knowing the reality of what it can be like to be at that sharp end. I think I know exactly what you mean, it’s enormously valuable. But I’m struck that you said just now that you had when you were younger, you had quite a sense of where you wanted your career to go, your leadership path. Was there anything at all in your mind’s eye that would have even suggested that you might end up leading… Well, I think everybody would agree is the major membership infrastructure body in the voluntary sector, or civil society, whatever language you want to use for it in the country? Was that actually part of your game plan?
Sarah Vibert 7:11
I think I’m probably safe to say no. And it’s funny, whenever people kind of describe NCVO in those terms, I suddenly get this overwhelming kind of complex of Oh, my goodness, am I actually supposed to be doing this job? But yeah, it’s safe to say I’ve always been really ambitious. I’ve always been really ambitious. And I heard… it’s interesting. You talk to a lot of sector CEOs. And they often wanted to do all sorts of different things and never imagined being a charity CEO. But I think I can probably say that probably from like being a teenager, I knew I wanted to be a charity chief executive. And so… but perhaps hadn’t got my kind of sights on NCVO. Moving to NCVO, I left the Neurological Alliance, where I really enjoyed the time I spent there. Because I did want to do at the time to go be Director of Policy and to do policy work on a much bigger platform. And with a much bigger policy brief. That was kind of my game plan. It was a one year contract. So yeah, even coming to NCVO as Director, I don’t think that was that was not in my plan to become the chief executive. But here I am.
Jane Ide 8:10
So tell me a little bit more about that. Because I think it’s been… apart from anything else, I think, for many of us in the sector, we’re very conscious that it’s been a very public journey for you. You did find yourself in that role as interim chief exec in unexpected and not very happy circumstances and clearly have a lot to deal with at that time. And you’ve been in the substantial role. You were confirmed what? In March? Yeah. So how, how does that feel for you now that, now that you’re in, in the post properly? Was that particular bit of your journey been like for you?
Sarah Vibert 8:44
I mean, it was, it was quite a big decision to actually go for the permanent role. For most of 2021, the interim role, I genuinely had no plans to go for permanent role. It kind of really hadn’t been in my game plan. I mean, it’s funny, I still remember when one of the trustees rang me up to tell me that the previous chief exec was leaving. And at the time, I was the director responsible for policy and comms and things. So I immediately went into comms director mode was kind of like, well, we need to think about what lines we’re going to take and like that thing, how we’re going to tell the staff, and then about 20 minutes later, he interrupted me and said, Sarah, actually, we’d like you to be the interim chief executive. And that was kind of the purpose of the call. So yeah, a lot of 2021 I was really clear what my job was, in terms of kind of stabilising the organisation internally, and I guess, external reputation, but really didn’t think about the permanent role, which I’m so glad I didn’t do because as soon as I started seriously think about a permanent role, which was probably after Christmas, really. Suddenly, everything I did felt a part of the job interview, which is kind of yeah, it’s really tough position to be in. And so yeah, now I’ve been in the permanent role for quite a few months. Everyone keeps saying, oh, so how’s it been? And it’s weird because although I did take a bit of time off, it doesn’t feel like I’ve started a whole new role. It is to a large extent continuity, but what’s so great is to just think long term now, partly because I’ve got the mandate to think long term, because I’ve been appointed by the board as the long term chief exec, but also, because a lot of the kind of immediate crisis has passed, so you can kind of lift your head up and actually look out, which is what the chief is supposed to be doing. Yeah. And so that’s not to say there’s not still lots of other things to sort out internally. And in terms of kind of changing the way we support the sector. But yeah, it’s great to be able to actually able to have a bit of a long term vision rather than kind of firefighting.
Jane Ide 10:27
And what are the big ticket items on your mind at the moment? What are you aiming towards longer term? And what’s kind of in the most immediate space for you?
Sarah Vibert 10:38
So I guess… So to answer the long term question first, I guess for NCVO, I’m really clear, like, what the top priority is, the top priority is that we’re a membership organisation. And the way to be a modern membership organisation is to be… put relationships at the heart of everything. And so that relationship between we and our members, and that platform we can provide to bring in the spaces we can create, to bring charities together is, it’s absolutely the kind of unique thing that we can do. And I don’t think that’s what our roles necessarily been for the last few decades, I think, you know, organisations change with the times, don’t they, but I think that’s the space we need to be in. And so that’s where I want to move us to. We’ve got really big ambitions around how we actually genuinely create networks, across 17,000 organisations, which is like, you know, it’s no easy thing to do. And so that’s, I guess, you know, where I’d love the organisation to get to. Honestly, in terms of the short term, the only thing that I’m thinking about and the team’s thinking about at the moment is cost of living crisis, the impact that that is having on people and communities, it’s absolutely terrifying. I think, I came back from holiday yesterday, actually, and had this genuine kind of sick feeling of fear of, you know, it’s like being back in March 2020 again. And there’s this kind of huge crisis upon us. And of course, the voluntary sector has got this huge role to play in kind of being that early warning system for society in terms of all the people who are going to be pushed into poverty over the next few months, but then in turn, also being able to provide relief. So yeah, it feels it feels like a moment of huge crisis. And so yeah, everything we’re doing at the moment really focused around that, in terms of the influencing we can do, in terms of how we can amplify the campaigning our members are doing, but also the really practical things we can do to support members who are also facing rising costs for energy bills for staff, and supporting them to support their staff in terms of their well being and other challenges that the cost of living crisis is throwing.
Jane Ide 12:43
I’m completely with you in terms… it feels certainly like another tsunami coming up, doesn’t it. And I think I’ve also been sensing this week particularly, whether it’s to do with people coming back from leave, or whether it’s to do with witnessing the bigger headlines. We’re recording this on the day after we heard the headlines yesterday about the prediction of inflation going above 13% in the next few months, which is quite terrifying. But it does feel as though suddenly, we are back in the space, as we were in the beginning of March 2020, where people have been talking about this coming for a while, we’ve all been thinking about it a bit for a while, but all of a sudden, it’s getting very real. And in that context, one of the things I’d like to sort of explore with you, I suppose, is actually picking up as well on your on your, your longer term thinking as well about collaboration. And I know, I know from the conversations you and I have had over the last few months that you are very, very interested in how really good meaningful collaborations can be developed and have to be developed if our sector is going to survive and thrive. And I know also, you’re very conscious, as am I actually in my role here at ACEVO, but that our organisations have a particular or were given a particular place in the sector by others, and that people look to us to work in a certain way or to operate in a certain way. And perhaps we have an opportunity to model a different way of approaching things. Can you just talk a little bit more about where you see the collaborative work going, and particularly that point about the power sharing because I think clearly NCVO does have a position of power and privilege in our sector, it is seen as being a big organisation, is seen as having access in ways that perhaps other organisations don’t. Can you can you just sort of…
Sarah Vibert 14:35
Yeah, I’ve got lots of thoughts on this. I guess on one hand, we’re not in March 2020, aren’t we? Because in March 2020, we were trying to respond to a crisis while also trying to work out how we will work together. And through the last couple of years, we’ve built some really strong partnerships, I think, I mean, particularly between our two organisations. And I just think that’s so important. I think we owe that to the sector to combine the strengths of our two organisations which do different things, but complementary things. And there’s been a few examples of, of quite specific projects we’ve worked on over the last few years. And I’m really excited for where we can take that you and I Jane, but I think particularly in terms of NCVO, I mean, there’s no getting away from the fact we are the biggest membership organisation on the civil society group. We’re definitely biggest membership organisation, by staff, by member numbers, by income. And I think with that comes a real responsibility to really make sure that the strengths of other organisations are harnessed and not overshadowed. Clearly, we’ve got a lot of power that comes with that. And it’s about kind of being generous in how we kind of share that power, how we amplify others. I mean, I think a really good example, actually, is the partnership that we’ve been forging with the FSI around the Small Charities Coalition services that were transferred to us. And I mean, I was really clear when we were talking about what, what would happen when Small Charities Coalition closed and what the legacy might be, that NCVO could not do it on their own, because we don’t have the legitimacy in the small charity space, because we are not a small charity. And so the FSI in that sense, was such a perfect partner for us. But I’m not gonna sit here Jane and tell you that it’s all perfect. And like Stuart, if he’s listening, who runs FSI will probably be smiling because it has been really hard, like partnership work is not easy. I’m absolutely determined that we will get it right because we owe it to the small charity sector to provide them with a really comprehensive service. But we need to be so careful at NCVO to make sure that we are being a generous partner and we are working with the FSI in a way that means that we don’t just overshadow what they’re doing. And that takes a lot of thought. And it takes a lot of like development of muscle memory, really. Yes, the NCVO team to work in a different way. And so I mean, going back to kind of where do I want to take NCVO and what do I want to create, we’ll only create that kind of genuine membership community if we do work in a way that is much more collaborative, much more open, and much more inclusive to other views. And yeah, I mean, I’m so proud of the current NCVO team, like we are moving the organisation in such a great direction. But yeah, going back to yours and my collaboration, I think, you know, I’m acutely aware that we’re much larger organisation than ACEVO. But ACEVO has that all those really strong relationships with some of the kind of biggest brands, charity CEOs in the sector. And there’s a huge strength in that as well. And so, yeah, so I’m really excited for what we’re gonna do. But sadly, I think we’re not gonna have a lot of time to sit and plan it out, Jane. I think we’re straight into crisis. And, you know, this week working out exactly what we’re going to do together and with the other civil society partners on cost of living, and we won’t, we won’t achieve what we need to achieve for the sector, both in terms of policy change, and in terms of comprehensive support, if we don’t harness the strengths of all those organisations.
Jane Ide 17:45
I know exactly what you mean. And I think though, you know, as you said earlier, this isn’t actually March 2020, or perhaps one of the big advantages that the sector has that we can bring to the sector is actually whereas in March 2020, there were good relationships and good networks and so on. But they haven’t really been put through the fire and put through a test in the way that they now have, and two and a half years down the line, I think there’s a much greater understanding of the roles of the each of the membership organisations, of the ways that we can work together and what we can all bring to that particular party. And I think on a personal level as well, personal relationships. This is a sector I think any sector actually, but our sector, probably more than most is rocket fueled by the personal relationships, whether they’re good or bad.
Sarah Vibert 18:31
Completely! I mean, at the end of day, it’s not a partnership between two organisations, it’s a partnership between the people who work in these organisations. So my team and your team, and you and me and our chairs, you know, all those different levels. Those relationships need to be strong and nurtured and continually, I guess, renewed and built upon. So yeah, absolutely.
Jane Ide 18:49
And I think as well, and I don’t actually want to put a gender frame on this, because I’m not sure it is necessarily gender. But you and I’ve talked over the last few months about the concept of generous collaboration. And I think that generosity of spirit is a really important part. Certainly I know. It’s something I hold very dear. I know it’s something you believe in as well. But actually, this isn’t about creating a better position for us or our own organisations. It is about how do we share? How do we work together? How do we create space for others? I think in the context of, of everything to do with diversity in the sector and inclusion in the sector, we’re both very conscious of the fact that we don’t hold the knowledge we don’t hold all the insight, we don’t hold everything that is needed in order to move the world into a better place. And so actually, we have to give some of that space and bring other people into it. And I think that sort of thing…
Sarah Vibert 19:43
Just to do a little name check, Kirsty McNeil from Save the Children articulates this so well, when she talks about the leaders that the future needs. And one of the kind of the key points to her argument is all around putting the cause above the brand. And I just subscribe to that so much because at the end of the day NCVO is here to support charities who are supporting people in communities. And so anybody else who shares that vision has to be our friend, we have to be working alongside them. And it doesn’t need to be about NCVO’s name being splashed all over something. It’s about what are we trying to achieve together. I think that can be challenging. I mean, I remember working in kind of more frontline charity. So when I went to Epilepsy Society’s, there were 26 epilepsy charities in the UK, which probably people wouldn’t realise. But when you’re fundraising, making sure your brand is all over everything is really, really important. And we did a lot of work at Epilepsy Society and Epilepsy Action on how we could… on joint policy work. But when it came down to it, we still had to have our brand on the public facing stuff because we needed to raise the money. And so I think that’s where it often gets quite challenging. But I’m totally with you on the generous collaboration.
Jane Ide 20:50
And I suppose, because this is the ACEVO podcast, obviously at ACEVO our primary concern is how we support individual leaders in our sector, every chief exec that is a member of ACEVO, we are there to support them personally. And we believe very firmly that by doing that, we have our greatest impact on the sector as a whole point to the ripple effect, I suppose. So I suppose bringing it back to you as as the chief exec. Given your personal situation and, and your life as a chief exec, working parent, all the things that come with that, one of the things I’m particularly conscious of, and very much picking up going back to what we’ve talkd about in terms of the cost of living crisis, is the very direct impact that that is already on will have on our members of ACEVO, the chief execs, and leaders of organisations, particularly in this sector, will almost without exception will stretch themselves beyond what is bearable in order to try and protect their organisations, to try and support their staff, to try and make sure that they can deliver against their charitable objects and to support the cause. I’m particularly conscious one of the one of the reasons I wanted to do walking and talking podcasts is because actually, I think there’s something really important and really valuable for Chief execs wellbeing, any leaders wellbeing, to get out of the office space to get away from the laptop to get some fresh air, to walk in the in, in the environment, wherever that might be, and have a change of scene and I’m conscious that many of the people listening to this will probably be doing so while walking or jogging, or gardening or driving or doing something because almost by definition, they won’t be sat on q teams meeting or in an office. And so from your point of view, how do you feel you do in terms of balancing those pressures? And where do you where do you want to go next? Particularly as we go into this next phase of very challenging times? Are you thinking about what you need to do for yourself?
Sarah Vibert 22:51
Yeah, I mean, I think the last few years has made everyone I guess, a lot more conscious about the importance of staff wellbeing, I don’t think it was something that we were talking about as leaders as much as we are a few years ago. And as you start to talk about wellbeing with your with your staff and your team, you suddenly realise this has to be me too. It can’t be the exception, the chief exec or the leadership team when we talking about working hours and stuff. And so it’s been like a constant battle with myself really over the last few years to be like, you know, there’s that awful point wasn’t there in 2020, when it kind of became the norm just to work on it? Well, I mean, I was doing homeschool. So it became the norm to work whenever I could, because when I wasn’t working, I was probably homeschooling the children or, I mean, actually, that’s probably a stretch, I was trying to do something to occupy the children that was vaguely educational. And say, I got into this awful like habit of Well, no, when you’re not doing that you just work because like, you’ll never do enough hours and and then there’s suddenly a moment I woke up and I was like, No, you can’t do this anymore. You can’t, you can’t work like this. And so I’m really quite conscious of it now. But again, it’s like a muscle you have to exercise and keep pulling yourself back. And you know what I’m super proud. Some of the nicest feedback I get from my staff is about being a working mum. And they’ll say like, it’s so great that you’ll just like pause the staff meeting and go on mute to deal with your kids. And it’s so great that you’ll just say I’m leaving now, it’s half four, I’ve got to take the boys to scouts, whatever. That makes you realise, that gives you a bit more of a renewed energy to actually not just pretend to have the balance, but actually demonstrably day to day have some balance because people are watching you. And if you’re working all those hours, even if you’re doing it a little bit in secret people know and your staff will kind of take their cue from you and I don’t want my staff to burn out over the next three months. I want my staff to get to Christmas proud of what we achieved for the sector, but able to actually rest and have a holiday because I mean, I know myself from I took some time off between the interim role and the permanent role. And I didn’t really enjoy those three weeks because I was so exhausted I actually couldn’t kind of properly relax and it took me a long time to get my head out of work and I’m not getting let myself get back there again. So yeah, taking regular breaks is sort of like, you know, work hard for six weeks and then have a long weekend or have a week off. I think it’s so important and, and also just have like routines on a day by day basis. So my thing is kind of cycling and running. It’s not everyone’s thing, but you know, have your thing you do that isn’t work and makes you stop work.
Jane Ide 25:17
I think that’s a really interesting point, perhaps, for us to finish this particular conversation on that, that actually for any chief exec, any leader, particularly working in the context that we do work in, that giving that support to yourself, reaching out, finding help when you need, it is not a selfish thing. It’s actually a very generous thing. And it’s the thing that you need to do for the good of your organisation, for the good of your team. And perhaps if we can all reframe it in that sense, and find the help and support and find the time in the way that gives us the best chance of being able to sustain our level of activity, then, then the sector will actually benefit from that. And most importantly, so all the people we are here to serve.
Sarah Vibert 25:59
What a positive note to end on.
Jane Ide 26:01
Well, the sunshine is lovely, I have to say I do apologise to anybody who’s listening to this in freezing cold weather or pouring rain, but it’s very lovely today. We’ve got ducks on the water in front of us. And I think that’s a good time for us to get a nice quick cup of tea before we move on with the day.
Sarah Vibert 26:17
Thank you very much Jane, for having me on the podcast.
Jane Ide 26:19
It’s been lovely Sarah, thank you so much.
This was leadership worth sharing. the podcast by and for civil society leaders. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, you can listen to all previous ones in every major podcast platform. You can also read a transcript on our website that’s ACEVO A C E V O .org.uk. or drop us a message on twitter, twitter.com/acevo. See you again in a few weeks. Bye for now.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai