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Leadership in voluntary organisations: from the top, bottom, and across the table

Carol Jacklin-JarvisAuthor:

Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis is a member of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership (CVSL) within The Open University Business School.

Carol spent over 20 years working in public and voluntary organisations. Her research addresses the experiences of voluntary sector leaders and she teaches on modules focused on collaboration and leadership. 

Carol Jacklin-Jarvis

Is leadership different in voluntary organisations, and if so how and why? 

Or, to put this question slightly differently, are there leadership ideas and practices that are particularly important to the sector?  

These questions are at the heart of the teaching, research, and engagement work of the OU’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership.

‘Collaborative leadership’ is one set of ideas and theories that our research and teaching suggest are particularly significant for contemporary voluntary organisations. 

These ideas focus on three things: first, that leadership may be shared; second, that leadership happens through processes of social interaction between people; and third, that these days leadership is frequently concerned with reaching across boundaries – of department, profession, organisation and sector.

Arguably, the more traditional focus of leadership studies on the individual is well and truly alive in the sector. 

There are good reasons for this. Being practical, many smaller voluntary organisations are reliant on key individuals – founders, lone managers, or activists, who grow and sustain a voluntary group at considerable personal cost. 

However, there is also a continuing focus on individuals in the voluntary sector press and in their profiles of people in large organisations. 

This emphasis perhaps masks the leadership that comes from different directions in an organisation.

In a sector that values being open to people participating, it would be great to read more accounts of the ways in which voluntary organisations are shared and influenced by people at all levels – from the bottom of the table as well as the top.

Clearly, many newer forms of social action demonstrate this bottom-up leadership. 

Photo of two people shaking handsCollaborative leadership theories uncover how even in more traditional organisations, the day-to-day interactions of organisational life shape the organisation’s direction of travel, and influence others to head in that direction.

Structurally, voluntary organisations are entirely dependent on leadership that is collaborative or shared, not least because of the way they are governed. 

Trustee boards are an example of how leadership is shared between individuals, not simply because of their different skills, but because of the processes of negotiation, discussion, questioning, and decision-making that send the organisation in one direction or another.

Here leadership is across the table. It doesn’t lie with any individual, but rather in the to-and-fro of their interactions. 

Similarly, the relationship between chief exec and chair is an example of shared leadership, in which interactions are central to their mutual and shared influence.

Finally, for many voluntary organisations working across boundaries is central to achieving their mission. Whether they are working in flood management, children’s services, or developing a sense of place, moving this work forward involves continual formal and informal interactions with organisations in and beyond the sector.

For all of these reasons, the idea of collaborative leadership is one that we believe is useful for the voluntary sector, and a useful way for researchers to understand the everyday interactions that move organisations in one direction or another.

However, there’s also a danger that we simply transfer our ‘romance’ with individual leadership with a ‘romance’ with collaborative leadership.

It is important to acknowledge therefore that research shows us that collaborative leadership is fraught with tensions and competing interests that must be managed with care, compromise, and ‘good enough’ practice.

Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis will be speaking as part of the OU in Scotland’s ‘Voluntary sector leadership and learning resources for the third sector’ session at The Gathering, in Glasgow, on 21 February 2019. Organised annually by SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations), The Gathering is the largest free third sector event in the UK.

Carol is the co-author of CVSL’s two free open access courses on leadership in voluntary organisations, including Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations, to help individuals reflect on and develop collaborative leadership practices.

Find out more about the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership and access its resources

This blog is adapted from content that previously appeared on the CVSL website.

  • Image by rawpixel on Unsplash

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