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The Funders’ Collaboration on Leadership: bold moves in challenging times

Andrew Barnett, Director of the UK branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, writes in the blog below that we have often neglected to invest in developing the next generation of leaders.  Read the blog to find about the Funders’ Collaboration on Leadership work to address the issue. 

Social sector leadership is an issue that’s close to my heart. I’ve worked with some exceptional individuals during my career: passionate and empathetic, thoughtful and strategic, collaborative, outward looking, with vision and foresight. They’ve not just been effective; they’ve been an inspiration to me. These qualities are found across the 163,000 organisations that make up the sector but not consistently so. Some of those heading up organisations lack the sort of insightful, collaborative and ‘generous’ leadership that feels so necessary when organisations should be collaborating, rather than competing, in the interests of their beneficiaries. Understandably, the response of some leaders is to retreat in the face of the huge external challenges whilst a tiny few – a small fraction of the total – act in a way that brings discredit on the sector as a whole and the values it stands for.

We have often neglected to invest in developing the next generation of leaders with such investment perhaps regarded as an indulgence. The fragmented nature of the sector – with many smaller charities and a limited number of larger ones – creates conditions in which we just hope and pray for good people rather than identifying and developing them. And this happens at a time when the social sector plays an increasingly important part in the fabric of society and yet faces some of its biggest strategic challenges. We have huge potential to be forces for good if only we can address this deficit.

This was the context for a ‘retreat’ held six months ago in Windsor.  The gathering was convened by Sally Bacon from the Clore Duffield Foundation (a pioneer in this field), Sara Llewellin from the Barrow Cadbury Trust and myself from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Branch (another early supporter of Clore Social Leadership) with the support of Shaks Ghosh from Clore Social itself.  We were joined by colleagues from thirteen other funders, from the sector’s major umbrella bodies and from government. It was an opportunity for challenge and critical assessment. The big question was how we, as sector “stewards”, could ensure that it was well led and governed now and in the future.

A sense of urgency hung over our discussions and a number of observations emerged: there is no ‘market place’ where organisations can find affordable and accessible leadership education (and no sign-posting to what exists); for a variety of reasons, demand from the sector itself appears weak (whether driven by short-termism or lack of resource). We felt strongly the need to support charities in their work. This is not just to reclaim their place in the affections of the British public, challenged of late by the behaviours of the tiny few, but to fulfil their potential acting alongside the state and a private sector who share the mantle of meeting the demands and needs of the British public now and in the future. We committed to collaborate on a bold initiative to transform social sector leadership – what some call “pulling all the levers at once” and others “a collective shot in the arm” – to be delivered within a fixed timeframe but with an impact that lasts beyond the activities themselves (or funding).

The Funders’ Collaboration on Leadership, as it has come to be known, has brought together 50 individuals from funders, umbrella bodies, social sector organisations, and government with the aim of developing innovative and scalable solutions to the problems identified at the retreat. The focus is on four main themes, each of which now has a working party:

  1. Restoring trust in the voluntary sector.
  2. Sharing foresight information and preparing the sector for the future.
  3. Improving the standard of governance by informing and giving skills to trustees.
  4. Developing a new leadership style for our sector.

Each working group has been challenged to develop a defined, time-limited experiment that tackles each priority head on. If we can demonstrate evidence of the potential to be transformative, the plan is to prototype, pilot and take each to scale. We have a strong interest in ensuring this initiative adds up to more than the sum of its parts and we will be seeking to link the work of the different groups in ways that create a multiplier effect. We have a strong commitment to avoid duplicating other sector initiatives on governance, leadership and trust, complementing and supplementing them, where we can. We will disseminate the findings from the work and keep the collaborative flame burning with events and communications.

This doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because of the commitment of people like Shaks, those who joined us in Windsor and others besides. And, it doesn’t come free. We are pleased that the Office for Civil Society has set aside a budget of £1.7 million to invest in stronger leadership and governance up until 2020.  Our desire is that this contribution forms no more than a third of the total cost, with the remainder being raised from other sources including trusts and foundations, who will be encouraged to trial the approaches with the organisations in their grantee portfolios.

We intend that a real difference is felt by the organisations who make up our sector, those who work with us, who benefit and even those who have been our detractors of late. We estimate that there are 1.3 million leaders in our sector. To empower them further, we must extend a rich but
co-ordinated offer of support to remarkable people in a context in which their work is not only valued but sought out.

Join the conversation with #FundersCollab on Twitter.