Lisa Weaks: Can shared leadership help to future-proof your charity?

Distributing leadership throughout an organisation can make it more resilient, writes our guest columnist

Lisa Weaks
Lisa Weaks

It can be a huge moment when an organisation wins a large grant or piece of work. For the leaders, it offers the exciting opportunity to do good things on a bigger scale and the satisfaction of feeling as if the organisation’s value is finally being recognised, sometimes after a long struggle. But although this can be a cause for celebration, it is also an important moment to think about what this means for the organisation, how it will manage this growth and, crucially, how it is led.

Many charities are founded and driven by someone who is passionate, committed and has a personal commitment to a cause. It is often their drive, belief and charisma that enables a new idea to get off the ground.

But as a charity grows, this style of leadership can mean the person is spread thinly and become less effective, so areas such as operational management and fundraising end up suffering. Relying on a key person is not a sustainable strategy for a growing organisation.

For long-term success and growth, leaders need to focus on building confidence in their teams and encouraging leadership by staff across the organisation. Making the transition to an approach in which leadership is distributed throughout the charity can be hard, but it can also make an organisation more resilient. This means creating a culture in which everyone takes responsibility for the success of the organisation, rather than concentrating on their distinct area of work. For this to happen, trustee boards need to ensure they understand the leadership skills required across the organisation and how these can be supported.

Many charities that have won a GSK IMPACT Award, an award managed by the King’s Fund and GSK for charities working in health and care, have grappled with these issues. One winner, Carers Leeds, moved from being a small local provider to the main single point of access for all carers in Leeds, and now sub-contracts to two organisations, including the local NHS. Its chief executive, Val Hewison, has managed this period of growth well by focusing on maintaining quality through sharing leadership throughout the organisation. It has seen the benefits in terms of energy and new ideas. This is not to say it has been easy, but Hewison attributes her success to perseverance and creating enough time to listen, communicate and consult.  

If a charity is to achieve its goals, it might have to take the role of a leader in its area or field outside the organisation. Some of the most experienced leaders we work with also provide leadership in their communities. They actively support other charities in their areas, working collectively towards shared goals rather than just concentrating on their own organisational agendas.

No Limits, a Hampshire-based GSK IMPACT winner, is a good example. It provides advice, counselling and advocacy for children and young people, and has grown to become a large local service provider. It supports a group of 11 local charities providing services for young people, which builds support and collaboration to help achieve better outcomes.

The King’s Fund supports charity leaders so they can in turn support other charity leaders to develop their skills and abilities, through a programme run with Comic Relief and the Big Lottery Fund called Cascading Leadership. The programme has broadened access to leadership support, something which most charities find difficult to access. Interestingly, it has also helped those charities that provide the support, with many of them feeling their own confidence and abilities have been improved by supporting other charities. It had also allowed them to reflect on their own leadership and how they work with their own teams, particularly in relation to developing leadership throughout their organisations.

Charities are rarely static and will at times need to question whether their existing leadership structure and style are best fit for meeting its charitable objectives. The sector faces many challenges and demands, but it is more important than ever that we build leadership right across – and at all levels of – the sector. In this way, its resilience and sustainability can be maximised.

For more information, view Building Resilience and Sustainability – tips for charity leaders and 2018 GSK IMPACT Awards.

Lisa Weaks is third sector manager and assistant director of leadership and organisational development at the King’s Fund

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