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.
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Figure 2 Success in the voluntary sector requires diverse identities from those working in it.

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.

Download this video clip.Video player: declvo_1_video_week3_interview_miller_wallace.mp4
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As CEO and chair in a relatively small organisation, working together is very important. We have to trust each other. We have to be honest with each other. And we have to present a united front to the trustees and to the staff group in order to move the organisation forward. It's a form of shared leadership, really. I think if a chair chose to interfere too much, it could be very difficult, which is why you need to have that trust in collaborative working and be clear what each person's role is.
Yeah, I think it's most important that the chair and chief exec do work together. The danger in many cases is that chairs might want to interfere and micro-manage the organisation. That isn't their role. My role is a supporter of the chief exec in carrying forward the aims of the society for the good of the children and their parents, their adoptive parents.
I view my role-- perhaps it's a bit of a hackneyed phrase, the critical friend, so that I don't necessarily, wouldn't necessarily, rubber stamp everything which Allison wanted. And if there were times of conflict, we will discuss them and discuss the best way forward.
I think sometimes it is challenging to decide how much to inform the chair of trustees and how much is just dealt with on a day-to-day basis. I think it’s good to keep the chair informed of some of the day-to-day stuff, because I think it gives a flavour of the kind of challenges that I'm dealing with, and also some of the joy of it.
So for example, when we've placed a group of children or we've seen a particular child grow and develop, telling those nice stories I think is also very important. Because it keeps the child central in everything that we do.
I think probably because I've been involved working in local government and various policy issues with central government, the unexpected is so expected that I'm used to dealing with it. Obviously, if something unexpected cropped up, Allison would let me know and I would use my experience to work through with Allison the answer to the problem.
I think an example of dealing with the unexpected was several court rulings a couple of years ago where the plans for adoption were questioned by some fairly eminent judges. We were in the middle of expansion, and a lot of the voluntary adoption agencies were expanding because there was increased demand for adoption placements. And suddenly it dropped by 50 per cent.
We are now through the challenges of that. And John has worked-- he supported me through all of that. And we're now at the point where we can look forward as an organisation, that the number of children we're placing has increased significantly. Financially, we are in a much better position than we were. But I believe that it's the relationship between the chief executive and chair of trustees that's been key in managing what was a very difficult period of time and will set us well for going forward in the future.
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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.

4 Identity in reflection: Developing a bicameral orientation

6 Making the most of diverse identities