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CVSL is ‘Open for business’: research and learning for Leadership Development

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CVSL has been created thanks to a generous investment by OU alumnus Anthony Nutt. Its aim is to strengthen leadership in the voluntary sector through the provision of free leadership courses and the completion of research on leadership over the next few years. The Centre will be officially launched in October at a free event in London.

The first course is available on the Openlearn platform, and three more are in preparation and will be available over the coming months. Research is underway – we are currently consulting with a wide range of stakeholders – including plans to track voluntary sector leaders over time to understand the challenges they face and the leadership development needs of the sector as a whole.

CVSL has a particular focus on smaller voluntary organisations. What do we mean by ‘smaller’? Generally speaking it means organisations that fit NCVO’s categories of ‘small or medium’ which have an annual income of between £10,000 and £1 million. Confusingly, different bodies and researchers use other terminology. In reality, we intend to be pretty flexible about this. In a sense, rather than being obsessed with size per se, we are, rather, more interested in those organisations which lack large professional staffs and the means to invest in their own leadership development (although we’re still open to talking to everybody with an interest in leadership!). Small can learn from large and vice versa.

This is an interesting challenge for the centre and for voluntary sector research more generally. I have previously blogged about the ‘missing middle’ and it remains the case that smaller organisations have been under-represented in research on the sector. Partly this is because even this part of the sector is highly diverse – with organisations ranging widely in size, capacity, reach and function. Often there has been an understandable interest in those delivering welfare services – but not all organisations have this focus. Further, leaders in the sector are arguably hard to reach, often dealing with pressing day to day concerns and finding it hard to get their heads 'above water'. Some leaders are volunteers, or working partially unpaid.

Small organisations make up the majority of the voluntary sector (three quarters of registered charities have annual incomes under £100,000), so research, capacity building and leadership development can potentially have a major impact. They are in many ways the backbone of the sector and provide valued services, help strengthen and represent communities and individuals, and are an important site for volunteering. On the flip side, it is the very largest organisations that account for the vast majority of the sector’s income.

Another reason for our focus on smaller organisations is that there is compelling evidence that they are under real pressure and are vulnerable to a range of threats. As the Independence Panel recently highlighted, there has been a redistribution of government income away from smaller organisations to larger organisations since 2007/08, partly because of changes in the way government funds the sector. There has been a continued shift away from grants towards competitive tendering and the increasing scale of contracts – shifts which benefit larger charities – and demand for services has increased, particularly in deprived areas.

However, we also know that government funding to the sector in general has fallen significantly and many organisations have already faced cuts (particularly from local authority funding) as well as growing demand. Infrastructure bodies that support the VCS at the local level have been particularly hard hit. In a more general sense, there has been a real shift away from the notion of a partnership between government and the sector – a process some call a ‘decoupling’ – to what might now be a genuinely threatening policy context. Some government and media interventions have been openly hostile to the sector. Partly as a result, the very notion of a coherent sector has begun to fragment.

Furthermore, we also know that the majority of organisations do not receive government money (only about a quarter of smaller organisations do), but it is difficult to know what challenges such groups face for their long term survival and sustainability. Overall, since the financial crisis and change of government in 2010, the largest charities seem to have held steady, while small and medium organisations have lost out. Unfortunately though we continue to lack detailed information about how these changes are distributed within the 'smaller organisations sector', as well as for instance between different sub-sectors (e.g. childrens services, mental health, arts and leisure).

It is not all doom and gloom: interesting innovations continue to emerge at the local level. Many infrastructure bodies who help and support the VCS at the local level report interesting experiments, and new partnership arrangements continue to develop. We are convinced that collaboration and cross-sector working will remain an important part of the conversation. In some ways wider austerity in the public sector has been the mother of invention. There is also some evidence that government acknowledges something of the existential threat facing smaller organisations.

This is the context in which voluntary sector leaders are working and we believe there is real interest and demand for leadership development as part of the solution. But as ever time and resource pressures are intense and it is partly for this reason that the Open University is ideally placed to deliver distance learning with innovative means of engaging with learners.

All the currently available courses are free to access; and we hope to work closely with leaders at different levels through an innovative programme of engaged / action research. The whole team looks forward to engaging with the sector through the research and teaching, so please do contact us if you wish to discuss our work in more detail.