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  • 01 Apr 2016
    James Rees, Anthony Nutt Senior Research Fellow, The Open University Business School These are difficult and unsettling times for voluntary organisations – with resource constraints, increasing media scrutiny, and turbulence in public perceptions being added to the ongoing challenge of responding to public policies and diverse social needs.  In such times of uncertainty it is more important than ever that organisations have effective leadership; and particular concern has been expressed about the need for smaller organisations in the sector to develop and enhance their leadership skills. Leadership skills, of course, can be applied at different levels of organisations. New sector resource from The Open University It is against this backdrop, and thanks to a generous donation by an alumnus, Anthony Nutt, that the Open University Business School has established a new resource that provides access to free leadership courses and knowledge for voluntary sector organisations. The Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership builds on research and expertise within the university and aims to progress new research of particular relevance to the leadership challenges faced by smaller organisations. Smaller organisations make up the majority of the sector – they really represent the backbone of much voluntary and community effort – but in many ways have been under-researched and many issues facing them are poorly understood. The Centre will work with stakeholders from academic, practitioner and policy groups to advance understanding of the complex issues voluntary organisations face, the ambiguities of stakeholder responsibilities and accountabilities, and the dynamics caused by changing public policies.  As well as providing free leadership development opportunities, it will lead on new areas of research and help to disseminate best practice and new thinking. Free courses The first online course, Introducing the Voluntary Sector, is eight weeks long and is now available on the free learning website OpenLearn. Involving three hours of study each week, the course covers the structure of the UK voluntary sector, funding issues, stakeholders and the role of volunteering.   It is a Badged Open Course (BOC), which means that on completing the course, each learner will get a digital badge and certificate of participation. This can be shared on social media profiles, made public in the learner’s OpenLearn profile, and can help build confidence by providing a record of achievement. Working in the Voluntary Sector, the second course from the new Centre, focuses on the practicalities of working or volunteering in voluntary and community organisations including: working with volunteers; marketing and communication; budgets; fundraising; taking part in meetings; working in teams and partnerships; and building resilience.  This course will be available later in the year and is also a BOC. Two further free courses focusing on leadership will be available in Autumn 2016.  The courses are open for anyone interested in learning about and developing leadership in the context of voluntary organisations.  You do not need to be in a position of seniority to enrol.  Volunteers and professional staff at any level are welcome; indeed a key argument made in the courses is that leadership can come from many levels.   Found this Blog useful? You may also like:    Storytelling Tips for Charities by Becky Slack How to make friend with the media by Kay ParrisGet your charity’s voice heard by Duncan Hatfield      
    2208 Posted by James Rees
News & announcements 6,084 views Nov 14, 2016
Open University launches new Voluntary Sector courses

On October 12th the Open University Business School launched its new Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership in London, where they launched two new free, flexible and open learning courses on voluntary sector leadership. Full details of the launch conference and the courses are here, and some clips of the day will soon be posted on Open University Business School’s Youtube channel. What follows is a brief overview of the themes that emerged on the day, how CVSL is responding, and how people in the sector can get further involved in the debate.

These are tough times for the sector – but there is a need to fight back

An obvious theme of the day was that these are intimidating, tough times for the voluntary sector. Both our keynote speakers spoke eloquently about the ‘rise and (partial) fall’ of the sector in recent times, at least as far as its place within public policy.

Sir Stuart Etherington argued forcefully that the sector is operating under much greater scrutiny on a wide number of fronts: over fundraising, governance, and high salaries. One audience member spoke eloquently about their organisation being almost at ‘breaking point’ due to funding reductions and lack of supports in the local environment.

On the other hand, a contrasting theme reflected the sense that times have always been tough and that the sector shouldn’t necessarily accept this dominant ‘crisis’ narrative. It certainly shouldn’t become resigned to it, and should “come out fighting’. As Debra Allcock Tyler cautioned, “everyone is busy complaining there is not enough money but the voluntary sector has stopped asking for money: fewer people are asking for money and they’re asking for less. It’s a negative narrative”. She made a passionate plea for the sector to rediscover its confidence, its spark and campaigning nouse.

There was a clear sense at the event that how leaders respond is important. And CVSL’s research and educational resources provide one forum for some of these discussions. But researchers need to recognise the real difficulties at ground level, particularly for the smaller organisations that CVSL is seeking to engage with.

Collaboration is part of the answer, but is not a silver bullet

Austerity and cuts have been widely seen as increasing the drive for greater collaboration. The voluntary sector is often a sought after partner for collaboration because of their local knowledge and connectedness; although there also be many hidden agendas at play. There is something of a consensus around that collaboration is now the name of the game; linked to doing more for less, reducing duplicative activity, and putting egos to one side.

However, Siv Vangen and colleagues’ research strikes a note of caution because it demonstrates that collaboration needs energy: it has to take account of the different partners’ aims, cultures, trust and power imbalances, especially in terms of the leadership challenges and the associated anxiety and rewards. This is explored in more depth in an accompanying Guardian blog that coincided with the event.

A ‘realist’ approach to collaboration acknowledges that behind the scenes you may need to:

  • Use stealthy manipulative methods to get consensus
  • Understand the political undercurrents and who needs to be involved

But! Collaboration is by nature inefficient. Collaboration needs compromise, energy, commitment and care. Leaders need to nurture collaboration.

CVSL thinks of leadership at it’s very simplest as ‘making things happen’, and the first course in particular explores this in depth. The second of the courses explores the dynamics, contexts and practices of collaborative leadership, drawing on a range of contemporary issues and case studies from the voluntary sector, so that learning takes place in an intimate relationship with lived practice.

The role of trustees and the importance of diversity

A clear theme of the day was the crucial role of trustees and the need to include them in dialogue about leadership development. The issue is undoubtedly complex but includes the difficulties of smaller organizations attracting trustees with a broad enough range of skills,  and the crucial role of chairs. There is a tendency to equate ‘leadership’ only with chief executives or senior managers and CVSL will be developing more work on this in the near future.

CVSL is also very interested in the idea that there is a cohort of younger or less experienced leaders who need support and development. This chimes with crucial idea explored in the new courses that leadership happens at different levels of organisations.

Closely related, a message that came through loud and clear was the need to work towards greater representativeness of voluntary sector leaderships at all different levels. The panel were pressed on this issue by members of the audience, and there was recognition that in some cases the sector had gone backwards on issues of gender and the presence of ethnic minority leaders at senior levels. Sir Stuart acknowledged that it was difficult to point to leaders from BME leading big charities

How CVSL is responding to these issues and engaging with the sector

One part of CVSL’s mission is experimenting with how online teaching and learning can be improved and done in a way that benefits the sector in these challenging times. Accessibility, flexibility and responsiveness is part of the answer but we also want to explore through dialogue with the sector the appropriate way to blend more ‘challenging’ and abstract debates around leadership with the practical, ‘day to day’ needs that organisations have for instance on governance, finance and sustainability.

Also, as researchers we need to keep tabs about what is going on at ground level, over time; and that is why we are doing grounded research that explores different issues affecting the voluntary sector more broadly – eg on mental health or migration – as well as researching the leadership issues that are specific to the sector.

We see this as a great opportunity to explore what works and try out new approaches to leadership development through online learning. So as participants rightly said, academic researchers need to “get out there and speak to the sector and do face to face stuff”, but also to sometimes ensure that the variety of learning resources to be broken down into ‘bite-size chunks’ so that learners can choose what is most useful to them. And we need to keep spreading the message.

If you have found the issues discussed here useful and interesting there are a number of ways you can get involved.

In particular, CVSL announced at the launch that it is now recruiting a Leadership Panel as a core part of its research activity. They would be delighted if you were willing to take part – the panel is designed to help the sector as well as individual leaders. Please complete this short survey to join the Panel.

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