NB - This blog post is a longer version of the blog of the same title I wrote for Third Sector in June 2011.
In a recent issue of Third Sector magazine (10 May 2011) there was a short article about the preliminary findings of NCVO’s Leadership 20:20 Commission. The key finding highlighted was that the biggest challenge the voluntary and community sector will face in 2020 will be funding.
Perhaps you’re not surprised by that, especially given the state of sector funding at the moment. The Voluntary Sector Cuts website alone details 483 cuts reported so far, worth £75,541,527. In some ways, especially as a recent senior manager in the sector and as a victim of the cuts myself, I agree with the finding. The road to recovery will be a long one and come 2020 there will still be many funding challenges for the sector to face.
However, I do worry at the short-sightedness of the finding. To focus on the financial challenges above all else is to suggest a mindset in the leaders of the future that isn’t that much different from the one dominating the current sector leadership. In fact, I might even suggest it smacks of a mindset that has been so prevalent and has been so money oriented that it has led us to the depths of our current problems. These problems, it could be argued, stem from a failure to look beyond how the voluntary sector can do anything unless there is money attached, much of it public and so now in short supply. Now that money is scarce many of us find ourselves sailing perilously close to the proverbial creek.
If, as NCVO claim, the Leadership 20:20 Commission contains the “20 most inspiring emerging leaders in civil society” then I hope they and the 512 of their peers who responded to their consultation can break the constraints of this narrow and potentially failed money-focused mindset and seek out something more creative.
I would argue that a key challenge facing the leaders in the voluntary and community sector is to move beyond a slavish focus on money as the only substantial resource at their disposal.
When you stop to think about it, no organisation is going to have all the money it needs to do all the things it wants to do, particularly in the kind of economic climate that is going to dominate in the coming years. So, we are faced with two choices: cut back our aspirations to meet our financial means; or find creative ways to make what money we have go further.
The Commission’s findings suggest the former choice might be dominating people’s thinking, something along the lines of “unless we can get the money we can’t do the work, we want to do the work so money is our big problem”.
To me that’s not leadership but a lack of vision leading to curtailed ambition.
Instead we should be exploring creative solutions. We should be saying “OK, we have £x and we want to achieve y. How can we leverage a, b and c to make £x go far enough to realise our goals?”.
So what are a, b and c?
I think one of the biggest areas of potential is in volunteering. For too long we’ve limited our thinking on the potential for donated time to really have major impact on our organisations. We’ve focused on what volunteers can’t do because of perceived legal risks, or on how they should meekly complement paid staff. And God forbid they should do anything that even strays into the territory of work done by an employee, past or present.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for wholesale replacement of paid staff by volunteers. Nor am I suggesting we open the door to unskilled or unqualified people coming in and doing roles for which there are specific skills and qualifications required.
What I am suggesting is that voluntary sector leaders should be developing their skills in volunteerism and actively supporting and developing people-raising as well as fund-raising.
They should be looking to find ways to maximise the potential contribution of an increasing number of people who have considerable professional skills that they want to use for social good.
They should be going beyond the self-imposed boundaries of ‘the way we’ve always done it’ and embrace new ways of working that incorporate the use of the most precious resource many people have to give to charities, their time.
To do this, to move beyond a myopic focus on funding and embrace volunteering, we need leaders who are skilled in leading and engaging volunteers. Unfortunately, there are too few of them about. Rarely does volunteerism appear on the programme of many CPD programmes for voluntary sector leaders. And when it does, it tends to be in terms of governance issues and not creative education about how well run and managed volunteer programmes can add significant value to organisations, making those precious pennies go even further.
Of course, I could be wrong here. The Leadership 20:20 Commission could have picked funding as a major challenge because it recognised the need to embrace non-financial forms of support. It has perhaps focused on funding as a key challenge because its members think the issues I’ve briefly raised here will be addressed in the next few years.
Experience tells me that this sadly won’t be the case though and so I look forward to the Commission’s views on what leaders need to do beyond just worrying about money.