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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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4 Identity work

We adopt the title ‘identity work’ to convey the notion that identity is active, that it moves with the practices and language we adopt: such as collaborative leadership. Smolović Jones et al. (2016) argue that the very identity of group leadership and that of the leader is open and fluid according to the debates and collective learning of groups and that such processes are even more expansive and open to possibility within a cross-organisational context, which necessarily draws on a broader range of perspectives. Another example will help you understand this point:

Ellen’s son, Harry, is 16 years old. He is very attached to his smartphone and does not like to be without it. He uses his smartphone to stay in touch with all of his school friends and the friendships he has developed in his karate club. Via his phone, he learns about the clothing styles worn by people interested in the same kind of music as him. Harry is also a socially and politically aware teenager. He uses Twitter to stay in touch with what people are saying about politics. A group of his friends also happen to be volunteers with Family Time. They organise fundraising sessions and volunteer to spend time with younger people, playing sports and encouraging them to learn musical instruments. They organise and communicate via WhatsApp, an app that enables rapid communication within groups. Their activities can be quite spontaneous, as well as carefully planned. Ellen often does not understand the language Harry and his friends use, although she sometimes wishes he would improve his punctuation and grammar in his online life!

Harry, like many people, young and old, develops his identity through practices we would have thought impossible a relatively short time ago. People’s phones and tablets are a part of them, almost like an extra limb. They develop as people as a result of a huge range of influences and communications.

A young man is paying careful attention to his mobile phone.
Figure 2 On the phone

Who you are informs what you do, and vice versa. Harry is no different to a retired woman (let’s call her Mair) whose identity is influenced by her friends, her experiences of volunteering in her local charity shop and the opinions she receives from her daily newspaper. In both cases you can talk about the practices and technologies that shape their identities. Of course, you can re-interpret who you are as people and organisations through the language and practices you adopt. Mair could change her newspaper, could learn how to navigate a smartphone or could start dressing like a teenager.

In more meta terms, you can look at the bigger strategic decisions of organisations as generating an identity. Many larger voluntary organisations have embarked upon ambitious partnerships with large corporate businesses: the argument in favour being that such partnerships achieve tangible benefits, with the criticism being that they can erode the radical edge of an organisation. Other voluntary organisations have become providers of services for government: again, the benefit of such an arrangement is argued to be the tangible improvement of people’s lives, with the criticism that a relationship of dependency upon government is created. Other organisations have chosen a more ‘independent’ path but risk being something of a voice in the wilderness when it comes to influencing society. Each of these strategic positions creates an identity for the organisation and the people within them: corporate partner, critical friend, service provider, agitator, critical voice and so on.

Identity is not static but is continuously being created by small and big acts, through the language you use and the personas you adopt. Identity is an active process: it is better thought of as identity work.