Stephen Hale: There is a silver bullet for the challenges facing the voluntary sector

Without collaborative leadership across the sector, we've no chance of hitting our shared targets

Stephen Hale
Stephen Hale

There’s a lot of gloom around in the voluntary sector, and it’s easy to see why. After all, we face declining funding, rising demand for our services, hostility in some parts of government, the impact of various fundraising scandals and the deep divisions exposed by Brexit. These are profound challenges. But cheer up. There is a silver bullet. We need to change the way we lead, together. We need to be braver and creative, but to do so together. The best phrase I’ve seen for it is collaborative leadership. Alone, we’ve no chance of achieving our shared goals.

Of course, there’s a hundred and one things we should be doing to tackle these challenges. But a step change in our leadership is the one thing that will enable us to rise above them and achieve far greater impact on the goals we share. Without leadership, every challenge is insurmountable.

I’ve worked and collaborated in three different parts of the voluntary sector: on environmental issues, in international development and in the refugee and migrant "sector" (I hate that word). Too often I’ve seen how lack of leadership and organisations focused narrowly on their goals and sometimes their brands undermine their shared goals. This failing is particularly common in large organisations. But small charities can also become isolated and fail to collaborate with others in their localities, to the detriment of the causes they espouse and the clients they serve.

I’ve also had the privilege of seeing what collaboration can achieve. The UK spends 0.7 per cent of our GDP on international development because international development NGOs worked together to achieve it. The sector is immeasurably stronger thanks to groups such as Bond that work in the interests of all. They bring big and small organisations together to build shared influencing strategies, to work together at key moments and to improve the quality of the work done by all. In the environmental arena, energy policy has shifted away from fossil fuels and towards renewables as the result of a collective effort over many years. The Green Alliance enables the sector to influence governments of all persuasions, most recently in the Greener UK coalition, set up to ensure Brexit does not damage the UK’s environmental protection standards.

There are plenty more examples. Bold, strategic, collaborative leadership secured the Homelessness Reduction Act. Long-term collaboration through the Time To Change coalition has been key to the incredible progress made in public understanding of mental health.

But there’s not enough leadership in our sector. We’re not brave or creative enough. We perpetuate old ways of working, are intimidated by those who oppose us and underestimate what we can achieve.

There’s certainly not enough collaboration either. If the peak of our potential for collaboration is Mount Everest, in my view we’re scarcely at Base Camp. Transformational change comes when people in many organisations work together, harnessing their skills, ingenuity and determination to achieve a common goal.

In my day job at Refugee Action, we know that deep collaboration is a prerequisite for achieving our vision of making the UK a country where people seeking asylum get justice and are able to rebuild their lives together. We’ve developed a simple leadership framework for our own staff, drawing on the models offered by Clore and others. Collaboration is one of the six tenets of leadership we seek from staff in leadership roles.

There are three ways to drive a step change in collaborative leadership.

First, we need to step up and lead. To help make that possible, we need to invest time and money in leadership training. Organisations such as Clore Social Leadership and Cass Business School offer some of this. But I’ve been amazed how few options there are for this. We need far more demand and supply – real choice, whether you’re a chief executive wanting a three week programme or an up-and-coming leader needing a series of (free) seminars.

Second, leaders in every part of the voluntary sector should look around them for leaders with whom they share a goal. Find them, put short-term organisational pressures to one side, think through what long-term goal you share and what you could do together in the short term to improve outcomes and built trust. There’s a common and very unproductive debate about whether we have "too many charities". There are excuses for not merging but none for not collaborating. Shared sector strategies should be the norm, not the exception.

This collaboration should start at the top of our sector. I’ve written previously about the incredible opportunity we have to place ourselves at the centre of the debate about where Britain goes next. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Acevo and others must work together on that.

Third, funders can play a powerful role. They should invest far more heavily in strengthening leadership and in challenging organisations to live collaboration in their services and advocacy. But this is be something we should embrace – we should not have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. We could be approaching funders with new ideas for what we could do together and challenging them to improve collaboration.

A step change in collaborative leadership would be good for every cause we hold dear. Let’s get on with it.

Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action

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