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

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5 Engaged leadership ‘within’ ethical dilemmas

As you have seen, experiencing ethical dilemmas is an important part of leadership. However, in this section you will reflect on leadership within ethical dilemmas. Note the word ‘within’ is deliberately selected. It is our belief that in leadership you cannot escape ethical dilemmas as such. Leadership is therefore as much to do with the quality of how you engage one another within the dilemmas (the processes of interaction) as it is about the final decision made. To flee in the face of a difficult choice and its aftermath does not count as leadership, as you would not really be leading anyone – other than yourself, in the opposite direction of the tough choices.

Described image
Figure 4 Supporting people is not without its ethical dilemmas and choices

Activity 4 Tough choices

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Read the case study below and make a note of the main options that you have, and the pros and cons of pursuing these options.

What would you do? What might some of the risks and benefits be of either selling or keeping the properties mentioned in the case study?

Case study 2

You work for a charity whose focus is helping people pull themselves out of poverty and alleviating the lives of people in poverty. Your organisation is interested in one-off and short-term assistance for people in need. For example:

  • you will offer someone transport to a job interview and for a short period of time after securing employment
  • you will provide people with the learning materials necessary for passing an exam
  • you can arrange one-off home alterations for people who have become disabled
  • you might even provide kitchen facilities and white goods when the absence of these appears to be causing people distress or ill health.

The problem is that, increasingly, your charity is being forced to turn people away because the funds are not available to finance as many grants as you would like. You attend many meetings where people speak about the situation in language you believe to be quite fatalistic: ‘What can we do? These are difficult times.’

You have been aware for some time, however, that the charity has much of its capital invested in a number of properties, rent from which helps to finance your core operations. The properties are occupied by people in need, who are able to take advantage of guaranteed lower rents. However, the properties, which were situated in an area of relative poverty initially, are now amidst a ‘gentrified’ neighbourhood, where property prices have increased exponentially. You know that if the charity were to sell these properties it could secure its future for many years to come and could afford to provide more grants to people in need. You weigh up whether or not to raise this issue with the rest of the charity’s staff.


The core purpose of this charity is to encourage longer-term self-sufficiency, or helping people ‘help themselves’ to get out of poverty. The charity was never established as a housing charity. Therefore, purpose (and logic) dictates that these properties should be sold in order to maximise the core purpose of the organisation. But what about the people who live in these properties? Might they suffer and be forced into poverty if the new owners decide to evict them or raise rents?

Assuming all alternative fundraising options have been exhausted, the dilemma appears to be: continue as an organisation with a different purpose (a short-term assistance and housing charity), or maintain the purpose and sell the homes, with possibly negative effects for current tenants. There is no easy answer.

The situation outlined in the case study is a fictionalised version of something similar that faced the charity Glasspool and a decision it took to sell 63 properties that it owned in the Walthamstow area of east London. Tenants were reported to have discovered that the properties they were renting had been sold when they received eviction notices from the new owners. The case was highlighted by the local MP, Stella Creasy, who referred to the situation as ‘a new low for gentrification’ (Creasy, 2016).

Nevertheless, was the charity not in a difficult position? Its press release of 9 February 2016 says as much:

We are very saddened to hear that tenants have been or are in the process of being evicted. As trustees of the Glasspool Charity Trust we sought assurances regarding our tenants, their rights and protection from our selling agents at the time of the negotiations. We were assured that they would be protected within the law. We have no power to prevent a new owner from reviewing their position with the existing tenancies post-sale.

Our founder bequeathed his estate with the sole aim of helping people out of poverty. That charitable aim has continued with the use of investment income to provide grants directly to individuals and families in need. In order to be able to provide these grants the trustees realised that they had to sell the charity’s directly held properties to maximise the amount of money the charity could give away. It was a difficult decision to take but the Trust was not established as a social housing provider. The sale of the remaining 63 units in Butterfields were the last directly owned properties of the Trust.

However, the sale of the properties has meant that in the last 15 years the Trust has been able to increase the amount of money it gives away from around £200,000 a year to nearly £1.5 million a year, a 750 per cent increase. In 2014/5 this resulted in 5,300 grants, supporting more than 11,000 individuals and families in hardship at a time when government and local authority are cutting back. 

As trustees, we take our responsibility to our staff and to the communities we serve very seriously.

(Glasspool, 2016)

The defence of the charity to a charge of an ethical lapse appears to be an assertion of ethics, which is what makes the case so interesting. The charity’s case is that it acted ethically by sticking to its ethical purpose. Its critics maintain that it suffered an ethical lapse for not thinking enough about the people affected by such an ethical stance. What the case highlights effectively is that leadership involves working through such ethical dilemmas very carefully. An important part of working through and within ethical dilemmas, we argue, is sticking around to lead through the fall-out of any decisions made. This is an overlooked part of leadership but a critical one, nevertheless. The next section considers this aspect of leadership as ‘leading through tragedy’.