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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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1 Why collaborate?

Meet Ellen. Ellen became the chief executive (CEO) of a local family support project, Family Time, four years ago. The purpose of Family Time is to provide support to the families of the local town in the form of advice and information, family activities and parenting classes.

Ellen’s story is based on the experiences of a real leader in the voluntary sector and other people whose experiences we have come across during our research and practice. It is an amalgamated and somewhat fictionalised account that nonetheless gets to some of the big issues involved with collaborative leadership. You will return to Ellen’s story on and off throughout the eight weeks of this course to focus your exploration of collaborative leadership. Hopefully, Ellen’s story will in many ways be familiar to you, but will also raise questions, stimulate your thinking and encourage you to engage with the course content. To begin, please listen to the first part of Ellen’s story.

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This section of Ellen’s story brought out the fact that many of the people involved with the charity had somewhat different understandings of the problems they face. We would suggest that these differences in understanding often signal different understandings regarding the purpose of an organisation in the first place.

Very few of us can agree in advance what the problems facing organisations really are. Compare this with problems in a family – are family problems a series of individual and unique private problems, for which people just need some one-off support on some practical things, such as learning about baby and infant dietary requirements, speech development and so on? Or are problems with families much more systemic and rooted in far larger problems connected to the education system, criminal justice system, health, social care and the local economy?

If we favour the first, then solutions might be more apparent – we can search our expert knowledge base for good practice and solutions. But if the problem begins to seep into the latter (a complex, systemic problem), then we need to start thinking about all kinds of interventions and experiments. The catch with the latter is that we do not know in advance what some of the solutions – or even the problems – might be. So we need to work together with people in different professions and areas of the community to start not only solving problems, but also working out what some of the problems are in the first place.

Grint (2005) refers to complex and contested problems as ‘wicked problems’: these are problems for which there is no prior agreement and no obvious solution based in current knowledge. These problems are ‘wicked’ because they are unwieldy: one important way of approaching these problems is to make the various dimensions of a problem visible and to work in unfamiliar ways with unfamiliar people, in other organisations and even sectors.

Working in this way also involves thinking about ourselves and our work differently. This will be explored next week, in what will be referred to as ‘identity work’, because it is the case that approaching work collaboratively involves a shift in thinking about how we see ourselves in leadership.

This kind of work is called collaborative leadership work and over the next eight weeks you will unpack and enrich your understanding of what such work entails.

Activity 1 Who can be involved in collaborative leadership work and why?

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Make a list of all the individuals, groups and organisations you think Ellen may need to collaborate with as she takes on her new job – and why. When you do so you may find it helpful to think about people and organisations who are interested in, and have the power to influence, Ellen’s work. You can also think of people who are affected by her and her organisation’s work. This may include people and groups who have the power to influence positively or negatively; people who may or may not currently be interested in Family Time.


Starting with the basics, Ellen will first need to think about her relationship with the existing people inside the organisation who she needs to establish trust and understanding with: the volunteers, staff and trustees. She will also need to think about her relationship with the chair. After establishing some of these basics, she can start to think more expansively. The local health services and local government would be a good place to start. Political buy-in can also be very important for collaborations – so, which local councillors and/or local MSPs and/or MPs could be called upon to lend their support? She will also need to think about ways in which she can start to appeal to more people to volunteer and donate to Family Time.

Some of these people and groups will inevitably be more enthusiastic than others. Ellen therefore needs to think about where the greatest early promise lies and to go with that. She can start to focus her attention on people with the power to enable or block the growth of the organisation.