Kevin Curley: Our local leaders need support and training

A conversation with a colleague in a community action group got our columnist thinking about the challenges facing local sector leaders and how to meet them

It was good to catch up with Carol Jacklin-Jarvis last month. She worked at Community Action Derby with me in the 1990s, and is now a lecturer in management at the Open University, where she is developing new courses for the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership. Our conversation got me thinking about the challenges facing local sector leaders and how to meet them.

I have always been uncomfortable with charities being described as "businesses". I'm convinced that values such as the pursuit of social justice and the struggle against poverty shape the way people approach leadership within local voluntary organisations. This is so different from the profit motive that I think we must resist applying the label "business" to charity. Many people are attracted to the sector because of their sympathy with an organisation's values. I don't think a strong values base is unique to our sector, but leaders are required to wear their values more visibly than in the public or private sectors.

A commitment to inclusion still has implications for local leadership practice. There can be a tension between inclusive approaches and the need to be efficient. When I was chief executive at Headway, the brain injury association, I remember the challenges of board meetings given that at least a third of its trustees had suffered head injuries. Meetings had to be structured to take account of some trustees' poor memories, limited attention spans and tendency to tire quickly. But the principle of inclusion rightly came first.

In small charities, volunteers are often at the heart of service delivery as well as governance. Working as a salaried leader with volunteers requires great awareness of the informal nature of the relationship between charity and volunteer. This is different from relationships based on formal employment contracts.

Many local charities must now compete to win public sector funding. The best local sector leaders don't set out to be the best competitors. Instead, they understand how much can be achieved through collaboration with other charities. They approach competition - forced on them by new procurement regimes - through a lens of collaboration.

Working in a small voluntary organisation can be lonely, especially when it's necessary to challenge a public body. Leaders must nurture two sources of support. First, they must strengthen their relationship with the trustees, developing them to be good at governance and at ensuring that the chief executive speaks for the whole organisation. Second, they must take time to network and build good relationships with peers at other charities.

Leadership skills and behaviours can be learned. Aspiring local sector leaders would do well to look at the new opportunities available through courses such as those offered by the OU.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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