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Can a practice view help us understand leadership in smaller charities?


Sally Vivyan is a third year PhD student affiliated with the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership. She has worked in the voluntary sector for 18 years and her PhD research focuses on leadership practice in asylum seeker and refugee charities. In this blog, she explains why she has chosen to adopt a Leadership- as- Practice lens for her study and the promise this approach may hold for understanding smaller charities.

I have always loved the founding stories of charities. The way they go from nonexistence to institutions that are tangible, solid and able to transform lives for the better never ceases to inspire. To me, the work of these organisations are important examples of leadership for us all in a complex and changing world.

I’m also frustrated by how poorly existing ways for measuring and understanding success are suited to the work of smaller charities. Traditional approaches to leadership tend to focus on individuals and the measurable results of their work but doing this is often to miss the point. We can all think of inspirational leaders, but it is rarely just one individual who creates and sustains a charity. We can all think of impressive results but at best impact metrics are only symbols of how a charity helps.

There is a movement in leadership research to look at leadership as practice, in other words, to understand how organisations set and deliver on their goals, rather than focusing solely on who does this or what it adds up to. This approach, which is closely related to collective and relational theories of leadership may be particularly relevant when it comes to smaller charities.  

Firstly, the practice view aspires to look at how people, places and practices relate to and change each other. When I talk to smaller charities, even those that have impressive organisational charts and business plans, they tend to talk about organic development, the ever-evolving nature of their work and the multifaceted roles their people take on. The inner workings of organisations that have these mutable and ambiguous elements can be illuminated by an approach that starts with the relationships rather than who sits where in a structure.

Secondly, the practice view has an appreciation for the mundane and the everyday. It shows how small interactions can be keys to help unlock understanding of how an organisation works. Often for smaller charities, it is the small, seemingly inconsequential details of how they are involved in their beneficiaries’ lives that define and create the value and meaning in what they do. Understanding the mundane can help us to understand why the tangible, but not necessarily measurable, work of smaller charities is crucial to the wellbeing of those they work with.

Thirdly, the practice view acknowledges that leadership cannot be divorced from context. In small charities it is often contextual factors; be those political, social, or material that are major determinants of what needs to be done and what can get done. Most charities start in order to try and meet a need, not because they have the means to do so but because they have the motivation to try and create those means. Many smaller charities exist in a constant state of overstretch and vulnerability to contextual changes. To understand how they survive and often thrive despite this, it is necessary to expand the lens of leadership beyond how good the people at the charity are, to take into account the context in which they are working.

If the practice view has a flaw, it is its tendency to throw the leadership baby out with the bathwater by becoming so focused on the micro that the macro elements of power, positionality and personality are forgotten. The challenge for research like mine, which aims to provide a thorough understanding of leadership practice in one charity, is twofold; I need to try and capture the alchemy of practice that makes a charity tick without forgetting those macro influences.

Looking ahead I hope we might find that the practice lens is helpful to researchers and practitioners alike. It is a promising way of holding a mirror up to how a charity works, to understand the non-obvious bits that make it succeed as well as the hidden challenges that may be holding it back.


Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about the Leadership- As- Practice approach

The comprehensive text

Raelin, J.A. ed., 2016. Leadership-as-practice: Theory and application. Routledge.

The lively debate about L-A-P

Collinson, M., 2018. What’s new about leadership-as-practice?. Leadership, 14(3), pp.363-370.

And Raelin, J.A., Kempster, S., Youngs, H., Carroll, B. and Jackson, B., 2018. Practicing leadership-as-practice in content and manner. Leadership, 14(3), pp.371-383.

A broader read on critical perspectives in leadership

Carroll, B., Ford, J. and Taylor, S. eds., 2019. Leadership: Contemporary critical perspectives. Sage.

If you are interested in learning more about how Leadership is researched and developed in the voluntary sector

Terry, V., Rees, J. and Jacklin-Jarvis, C., 2020. The difference leadership makes? Debating and conceptualising leadership in the UK voluntary sector. Voluntary Sector Review, 11(1), pp.99-111.

CVSL briefing papers

Paper One Positioning leadership: an overview of the academic debate on leadership in the voluntary sector

Paper Two Understanding the leadership development terrain for the UK voluntary sector

Paper Three Challenging leadership in the voluntary sector: the promise of collective leadership theories

10th March 2021

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