Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

1 Power and influence

Listen to another extract from Family Time's Ellen.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: declvo_1_audio_week7_ellen.mp3
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Amazingly, it's the third anniversary of my arrival here at Family Time next week. I've become quite fond of my cubbyhole of an office, with the secondhand desk squeezed between the photocopier and the shredding machine. These last three years have been something of a roller coaster ride-- staff crises, difficult relationships with trustees, and financial challenges. And if I'm honest, I wasn't always sure Family Time was going to survive. That would have been really bad news for the families we support.
Fortunately, the decision last year to apply for public sector funding has given us a new lease of life, and we now have three more part-time workers delivering a parenting programme in partnership with the council's social work team. Things were looking a bit more stable until I opened my emails this morning. The very first message was from the Families First think tank, reporting on a new government policy to offer family support work in schools, reducing referrals to other agencies. I was kind of aware of the change, but there's never time to read those policy documents properly, so I'd really only scanned the summary.
And basing services in schools sounds great for families, but maybe not so good for us. It was still early-- an hour until the office opened-- so I pulled up the referrals data on the laptop. I knew referrals from schools were going down, but when I looked back over the year, they're 25% down. And that means we can't claim the funding we thought we could. So that's another hole in the finances this year.
The next message was from Sally-- she manages a project like Family Time in the neighbouring county-- asking if I'd read the report. And I emailed back, and soon we were in one of those depressing email threads where we both start to see a future with our own referrals going down and down, and no way we'll meet our targets. And then the finances fall over, and so on, and so on.
Anyway, I had a staff meeting to lead, so I shut the computer down and tried to put it all out of my mind for a while. I rushed out of the staff meeting at the end, because I guess I felt there wasn't any need to tell anyone yet that there might be more changes ahead.
Then at 3 o'clock, I had a call from Jonathan, the family support commissioning manager at the council. He wanted to talk through the policy change, and told me government will require local parenting projects to work together across the region to deliver these changes. Apparently it's essential I attend a regional briefing next week. So that's next week's diary all changed yet again.
And if I'm honest, I couldn't really focus for the rest of the afternoon, because I was too busy wondering what this all means for us. Working collaboratively with organisations across the region seems like a good idea in principle, but what will it mean in practise? And who will be in charge? And will the government or the local councils try and tell us what to do? And will there be less money? And how will it be shared? Will the larger organisations dominate the discussion and the decision making? And if so, how can I influence the partnership from my position in what is probably the smallest local project of all?
So I don't know if Family Time will survive this latest change, or if it might disappear, subsumed into the partnership or taken over by one of the bigger players. It's a lonely place in this office sometimes.
End transcript
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Ellen expresses concern that collaborating with other organisations means that they will have power over Family Time’s future. Her time and priorities are impacted by external agencies, and she struggles to see how she will be able to influence the regional partnership.

A jigsaw is made up of many individuals
Figure 1 Working together

Although Ellen’s story is fictional, it reflects stories we have heard repeatedly about how it feels to work with, and endeavour to influence, larger organisations that have power to shape the focus and future of smaller voluntary organisations. This can especially be the case when service delivery is commissioned by large public sector organisations. One research paper that explores relationships between Scottish third sector organisations and the state describes the need to continually negotiate a tension between independence and mission on the one hand and contract requirements on the other (Egdell and Dutton, 2018). Such tensions inevitably constitute pressures and dilemmas for those who lead. Ellen’s thinking reflects the two ideas about power that were introduced in this week’s introduction. First, she recognises that larger, better resourced and positioned organisations (particularly those in the public sector) have the power to shape Family Time’s future. Second, she begins to think about how she can work through relationships with key players – colleagues in different organisations – to influence the direction of travel of new collaborative partnership arrangements.


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