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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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3 Sector challenges and the course’s responses to them

To date much of the academic and policy writing about leadership in the sector has focused on individuals (Terry et al., 2020). We believe that leadership practice, and specifically collaborative leadership practice, is particularly important in the voluntary sector because of the sector’s unique challenges. We draw on the following understanding of voluntary sector challenges for collaborative leadership:

Dependence, independence and interdependence

Voluntary organisations are frequently represented as dependent on public sector funding, and therefore as greatly impacted by a government’s financial settlement. Actually, only a minority of voluntary organisations are directly funded by public agencies. However, at the broader level, the work of many voluntary organisations is closely linked to the policies and activities of public sector agencies. Retaining autonomy, whilst working interdependently, is therefore a key and ongoing issue for the sector.

Picture of hands holding out food to other hands who receive the food.
Figure 2 A charity food kitchen

We will address the dependency, independence and interdependence of the sector by introducing you to a number of collaborative leadership practices. We will draw on some important ideas from informal democratic practice and participation. By democratic we do not mean every person having an equal say, and certainly not the act of voting. Rather, we mean practices that try to encourage as many diverse voices and perspectives as possible, and which involve thinking about how we talk with one another and challenge one another. Getting at what people hold to strongly is important because it can draw out hidden identifications and dimensions to problems that would otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, conflict can be constructive and productive.


The sector is increasingly concerned with its distinctiveness and independence (from the public sector and from private organisations). In this context, we understand identity as made up of an organisation’s unique history, purpose and culture. It is impossible to say that the sector has one distinctive identity. Some organisations are very rooted in local communities, others see themselves as largely expert providers of services and still others view themselves as energetic national (and international) campaigners and advocates.

If you think about it, the identity of an organisation shapes the kind of activities it chooses to pursue (or not). Identity also shapes the sorts of people who are hired and volunteer for organisations. Does this mean that identity is set in stone, never to change? Of course not. Identity is up for grabs and can shift as the people within an organisation experiment with new ideas, via interesting leadership practice.

Value, values and power

Closely related to the issue of identity is the question of the sector’s distinctive value (the difference that it makes in society), and of the values which underpin different voluntary organisations and their purposes. Our various collaborative partners will share different values. And some of these partners will necessarily enjoy more power and influence than others. It is our job in collaborative leadership not necessarily to equalise power relations (that is unrealistic) but perhaps to bring out the values of people whose voices can be muted in everyday public life. Equally, we need to think about constructive but also challenging ways of working through unequal power relations.

To find out more about the contemporary voluntary sector in England and Wales, a good starting point is NCVO’s annual almanac [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] that collates key data and uncovers significant trends in the sector’s development. To find out more about the sector in Scotland, we suggest you start with similar data produced by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) in their Sector Stats. If you are based outside the UK or wish to investigate international data, then you may find it useful to explore the comparative data produced by John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project.