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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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4 Why is leadership relevant for the voluntary sector?

Leadership in the voluntary sector comes with its own specific challenges.

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Figure 3 Facilitating discussion

Here are some reasons why leadership is particularly relevant for the voluntary sector:

  • Working together: most voluntary organisations start as the result of a passion held by an individual or small group of people. If this passion starts to gather momentum and interest, small organisations can become victims of their own success. They grow: they accumulate funds, employees, volunteers and users. Problems become more difficult and people have to find new ways of working together.
  • Identity and ethics: the issue of a distinctive identity for the voluntary sector and its organisations remains an important one. As organisations engage more in partnership working – with business and government – it is perhaps only natural that a certain amount of the initial purpose of the organisation, its reason for being, may become more opaque. Good leadership will help organisations stay in touch with – and adapt – their fundamental reasons for being.
  • Independence: partnerships can also encourage dependency, particularly when partners bring crucial funding to the table. This raises the question as to how leadership maintains independence whilst building partnership.
  • Energetic campaigning: a crucial aspect of many voluntary organisations is their campaigning work. Successful campaigns involve exciting one-off ideas but a fair amount of resilient team graft is also needed to sustain any campaign. Leadership helps keep people alert, fosters innovation but also keeps people going through the tough days as well as the good days.
  • Online dynamics: the online revolution has transformed the way we live our lives and interact. Voluntary organisations are no different. Online platforms mean that leadership can spring up from unusual and unexpected sources. Team working often now also happens online, in discussion forums and via social media. It may also provide new opportunities for members, volunteers and other stakeholders to be involved in decision making, for example, the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees consults its members on what campaigns it should undertake.

Activity 2 How people in your organisation talk about leadership

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

This week, spend some time paying attention to what people talk about and how people talk within your organisation. Write a concise account of your views and experiences in your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   using the following questions to help you:

  • In your view, are people in your organisation mostly engaged in leadership, management or something else?
  • What makes leadership work in your organisation?
  • Did you identify any opportunities for leadership that were not taken?

Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 1 Activity 2.


What you may have noticed is that leadership is, in most cases, much less common than the commonness of the word itself might suggest. People may dream of leadership but more often practise management, administration and professional work. Hopefully you spotted some opportunities where leadership might have been employed more emphatically or explicitly. Finally, you may have started to think about how you could inject a little more leadership into your place of work.

As the course moves on, we think it is important to be up front with you about our own views and definition of leadership. The next section provides a definition of leadership and a supporting argument for the relevance of that definition.