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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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5 Voluntary sector identities

In this section, you will explore identities that are sometimes attributed to voluntary organisations and their leaders, before exploring the significance of identity for collaborative leadership in more depth.

Photograph of a group of volunteers serving food.
Figure 3 Voluntary sector identity

A well-read guide to the law for voluntary organisations is Hayes and Reason’s Voluntary but not Amateur (2009). This title captures (and challenges) one identity that is sometimes attributed to voluntary organisations and their leaders – a group of well-meaning amateurs. In recent years, there has been an effort to convey the professional nature of the sector and its leaders, with an emphasis of the effectiveness and efficiency of the sector. However, there may be times when individuals and organisations in the voluntary sector want to distinguish themselves from the groups more commonly referred to as ‘professionals’, or from some of the connotations of a ‘professional’ identity.

The term ‘voluntary’ conjures up visions of well-meaning amateurs attempting to do good in a very British, slightly dysfunctional way. However, those working for charities know the reality of the sector is far from this, with some charities delivering services to those most in need far more effectively and efficiently than government bodies and other self-proclaimed professional organisations.

(Cooper, 2013)

A second identity that recurs in narratives of the voluntary sector is that of the lone rescuing hero – consider the founding figures of nineteenth-century charities. Some long-standing UK charities are still named after these figures – for example, Barnardo’s, Spurgeon’s, Sue Ryder and Leonard Cheshire. If you are studying from outside the UK, consider whether you can see the lone rescuing hero identity in the non-profit sector in your own country.

Consider this headline from the Guardian’s reporting of the refugee crisis – ‘The idealists of Lesbos: volunteers at the heart of the refugee crisis’, accompanied by a picture of volunteers apparently rescuing a child from the sea (Guardian, 15 April 2016). Or this line from later in the same report: ‘At no other time in modern history have NGOs or individuals stepped in to make up for the limited resources of a near bankrupt country that has struggled to cope with the influx.’ While it is good to acknowledge the commitments and achievements of individuals, and clearly makes for good publicity, many in the sector will be uncomfortable with identifying themselves primarily with the lone rescuing hero identity.

More broadly, there is a continuing debate in the voluntary sector literature about whether there is something that is recognisable as a ‘voluntary sector identity’ (Milbourne, 2013) that captures the distinctive characteristics and attributes of the sector as a whole, and in turn informs the actions of individuals within the sector.

Activity 2: Leadership and identities

Timing: Allow about 50 minutes

Reflecting on how you see the identity of the voluntary sector will inevitably shape how you view leadership, so in this activity you will reflect in more depth on the identity of the sector. We created the word cloud below from words we found used to describe the distinctive identity of the voluntary sector in the academic and practitioner literature. Spend 20 minutes reflecting on which of these words (if any) you identify with. Are there any words you would add?

A collection of words which together form the shape of a cloud.
Figure 4 Identifying with voluntary sector identity

Share these words with a colleague in the voluntary sector and ask them which of these they identify with – or not. How does their response differ from yours? In your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , reflect on what your response to these words might suggest about how you see the sector’s identity, and your own identity within it. How might these constructions of identity impact on the ways in which you collaborate with others in and beyond the sector? Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 2 Activity 2. Spend 30 minutes doing this.


How easy did you find it to begin to identify a voluntary sector identity through this activity?

Milbourne (2013) is one of a group of researchers who argue that a distinctive voluntary sector identity has been eroded by the policy and political context since the 1990s – the move from public sector grants to competitive commissioning and the increased role of voluntary organisations in the provision of public services. Voluntary and public sectors have historically each impacted on the development of the other, but Milbourne argues that the sector needs to recover a distinctive identity. This sense of distinctiveness (or otherwise) informs the actions of individuals within the sector, and the ways in which it is perceived by those outside the sector, and therefore impacts on collaboration across sector boundaries. Could part of the distinctiveness of voluntary sector identity be that people within the sector are great collaborators?

You conclude this week’s learning by reflecting on how the notion of participative leadership practice can contribute to the development of an identity for voluntary organisations that is open but also meaningful.