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

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2 Leadership as purpose

For the homeless charity Crisis, eradicating homelessness is a clear purpose underlying all of its work:

Homelessness is devastating, leaving people vulnerable and isolated. We believe everyone deserves a place to call home and the chance to live a fulfilled and active life.

(Crisis, 2015)

Note the strength of the language used here by Crisis: ‘devastation’; ‘vulnerability’; ‘isolation’. Through these words, a picture emerges of shattered lives. Furthermore, Crisis believes that ‘everyone deserves’ a home. ‘Deserves’ signals the sense of a home as a fundamental right. There is a strong sense of ethics at play here. Having a home is a fundamental right and not to have one is a wrong – this is about ethics. Furthermore, this is about a sense of ethics leading the organisation.

Described image
Figure 1 The charity Crisis is driven by a clear sense of purpose

The vision statement of the Scottish Refugee Council similarly reflects the purpose that underlies its work – to provide a welcome for refugees:

Our vision is for a Scotland in which all people seeking refugee protection are welcome. A place where women, children and men are protected, find safety and support, have their human rights and dignity respected and are able to achieve their full potential.

(Scottish Refugee Council, 2020)

Again, the language reflects the organisation’s ethical commitment to human rights and inclusion.

In the UK, charities are legally obliged to state their purpose. Registering the purpose of a charity is to ensure it is working for public benefit as it will receive the tax and other benefits that come with charitable status. However, the focus of this course is not on the legalities of purpose but on how a voluntary organisation’s purpose can do leadership work.

In a leadership sense, an organisation’s purpose sits somewhere between its morality and its ethics, in other words, between the underlying system of values of an organisation and its judgments about right and wrong. That is what makes thinking about purpose so intriguing.

But a purpose does not result in an automatic set of ethical prescriptions: X is right, Y is wrong. There is significant room for interpretation of a purpose and what it means in practice. Moreover, a purpose may not always be fit for purpose. Sometimes a purpose may lead an organisation in a direction that is consistent but still wrong.

Purposes can also lead people to pursue certain activities over others. Yet purposes are also contested (debated, argued over), which is what makes them such a lively and interesting point of focus for practice and research.

Activity 2 Your organisation’s ethical purpose

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Take a photograph of something that you believe captures well the ethical purpose of your organisation. Post your photograph to the correct thread for this activity in the discussion forum [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . After posting your picture, try to answer the following questions in no more than 20 minutes:

  • Why does this photograph represent the ethical purpose of your organisation?
  • What does this location/person/object (or all three) say about how you relate to your organisation’s purpose?
  • How does this picture make you feel? What does it make you want to do in or on behalf of your organisation?
  • After posting and commenting on your photograph, please go and ask two other people a question about their photographs.

Note, photographs borrowed from elsewhere, i.e. Google images, will be deleted. We want you to take your own picture, either with your own camera or by borrowing a friend’s camera or mobile phone. If you are studying this course in a group, share your photos with a short explanation of why this picture represents your organisation’s ethical purpose.


Why did we ask you to take a photograph rather than simply describing the purpose of your organisation? For two reasons. The first is that it is good to exercise a different part of the brain, to think differently about your organisation. Thinking about ethics should mean that you engage differently; ethics is about more than instrumental thinking. The second is that we want you to pay attention to how you feel about an organisation’s purpose. Purpose should engage the emotions as much, if not more than, logic. Being reminded of an organisation’s purpose can be difficult as well as positive, especially if you feel that you or your organisation has strayed somewhat from its purpose.

The course now moves on to consider organisational purpose in more depth.