5 Identity, difference and the voluntary sector
The voluntary sector attracts such a diverse range of people – from the professionals from other areas giving their time for free, to enthusiastic and idealistic volunteers, people with deep sector expertise and to those simply volunteering to enjoy themselves and learn. These are all people who need to come together to engage in collaborative leadership.
Here are some of the work identities we think are important to the sector:
- The volunteer: many volunteers have professional lives away from the organisation for whom they volunteer, others volunteer in the hope of building valuable skills for the future. Volunteers get involved for a variety of reasons. Some for deeply personal reasons – volunteering at a hospice, for example, because of the care given to a loved one in the past. Some people simply enjoy the social side of volunteering. Others hold certain ideological, spiritual or moral commitments that drive them to get involved. The implication is that volunteers also contribute a range of quite different things, according to their preferences and skills. Some people may also contribute professional services for free.
- The subject expert and professional: subject experts usually undergo years of training in their areas of expertise (finance, law, human resources and so on). They usually identify with at least two different spheres, the organisation in which they work and their broader profession outside the organisation.
- The manager: managers may start as subject experts and learn management along the way. Management comes with its own language, its own techniques and practices. Managers are generalists by definition. Few people choose in advance that they want to become managers – rather it is something that they grow into as they advance their careers.
- The trustee: trustees can be appointed because of their professional knowledge, experience of overseeing other organisations or because of their passion for a cause. The trustee is an interesting identity because it sits somewhere between volunteer, subject expert and manager.
There are two key points to be made in relation to these identities. The first is that each is assembled over the years due to training and experience. The second is that none of us fits neatly into any of these boxes. We break the confines of our own identities – within our own heads and externally, in our interactions with others in collaborative leadership. It has already been noted that people become volunteers, for example, for a number of different reasons and pursue volunteering in a number of different ways. As we reflect on the difference that helps to build our identities, we appreciate even more how much our identities can be opened up, even as we remain committed to our own beliefs and values. Working and talking with others in collaborative leadership can also help us see possibilities for stretching and growing our identities.
Even if we see our work identities in certain, quite narrow ways, others do not construct our identities in this way. They see us predominantly via the filter of their own identifications. For example, Harrison et al (2012) note that the role of the charity board chair, despite the statutory obligations of such a post, are perceived in ways that exceed these boundaries. The authors note that chairs are looked upon by members of staff and volunteers for leadership, despite leadership not being in the job description. Chairs are also expected to demonstrate a range of ‘softer’ behaviours (emotional intelligence, affinity for teamwork) not normally associated with this role.
In other words, identities, even professional ones, are capable of growth, and it is worth us reflecting on whether we are able to make the most of the diverse identities housed within our organisations - and beyond in our collaborative leadership work.
Now watch the following video, an interview with Alison Miller, Chief Executive, and John Wallace, Chair, of St Francis’ Children’s Society. In the video Alison and John reflect on how they work within their identities as chief executive and chair.
John and Alison talk explicitly about their shared leadership but as we know, these things are simpler in principle than practice. Voluntary organisations are a mix of very diverse people and identities. John refers to himself as a ‘critical friend’, which is a powerful way of saying that good chairs will feel able to offer constructive critique (you will learn more about this in Week 5). Offering critique from a position of difference is an important part of collaborative leadership. Most importantly, Alison and John talk about building and nurturing personal relationships of trust. Putting the work in at this level enables them to tackle difficult problems when they arise and make the most of their diverse identities in practice. With that in mind, you will now move on to think about ways in which voluntary organisations can draw on the strengths of diverse identities.