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Kevin Curley: Local charity leadership is about more than ensuring they have enough money

17 Sep 2018 Voices

To coincide with Governance & Leadership magazine's feature on the modern chief executive Kevin Curley, former chief executive of Navca and chair of Community Action Derby, as well as winner of the outstanding achievement award at this year's Charity Awards, discusses leadership in the local charity sector.

The invitation from Civil Society Media to write about voluntary sector leadership came as we were opposing huge proposed cuts in sector funding here in Derbyshire from our four Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). 

I chair the trustee board at Community Action Derby – the infrastructure charity for the city - and have been busy supporting our chief executive, Kim Harper, to organise a campaign to persuade the CCGs to think again. We have mobilised local press and regional TV, met our key partners in local government to seek their support, brought the affected charities together, asked for interventions from our national bodies NAVCA and NCVO and sought public law advice about the scope for a legal challenge. So, it seems to me an important role of leadership at trustee level to step forward when there is a crisis of this sort, get alongside the chief executive and do everything possible to protect the local sector’s resources.

Establish the right values base

But there is of course much more to leadership in the local voluntary sector than ensuring charities have enough money to deliver good services. Establishing the right values base has to be right up there as a priority. I have always resisted those who describe charities as ‘businesses’. I’m convinced that values such as the pursuit of social justice and the struggle against poverty, shape the way people approach leadership within local voluntary organisations. This is so different from the profit motive that I think we must resist applying the label ‘business’ to charity. Many people are attracted to the sector because of their sympathy with an organisation’s values. I don’t think a strong values base is unique to our sector but leaders are required to wear their values more visibly than in the public or private sectors.

A commitment to inclusion for me continues to have implications for local leadership practice. There can be a tension between inclusive approaches on the one hand and the need be efficient. I remember the challenges of board meetings when I was working as chief executive at Headway the brain injury association, given the charity’s commitment to having at least one third of trustees who had suffered head injuries. Meetings had to be structured to take account of some trustees’ poor memories, limited attention spans and tendency to tire quickly. But the principle of inclusion rightly came first. Here in Community Action Derby we have worked hard to ensure that our trustee board is representative of the sector we serve at least in terms of gender and ethnicity. That for me is a leadership priority.

Volunteers at the heart of service delivery

In small charities volunteers are often at the heart of service delivery as well as governance. In Community Action Derby we have 17 brilliant volunteers who run our reception area and volunteer centre with just a part-time staff member in support. Working as a salaried leader with volunteers requires a high level of awareness of the informal nature of the relationship between charity and volunteer. This is quite different from relationships based on a formal employment contract.

Many local charities must now compete to win public sector funding. The best local sector leaders don’t set out to be the best competitors, simply preparing winning tenders. Instead they understand how much can be achieved through collaboration with other charities. In Community Action Derby we never compete against our member charities and look for innovative ways in which we can add value to their bids for funding. Right now, we have contractual partnerships with two member charities - Creative Carers, running a carers’ centre and with Disability Direct, providing a service which helps disabled people to get into training and employment. We approach competition – forced on us by new procurement regimes – through a lens of collaboration.  

Working in a small voluntary organisation can be a lonely place, especially when it’s necessary to challenge a public body. Leaders need to nurture two sources of support. Firstly, they must strengthen their relationship with the charity's trustees, developing them to be good at governance and at ensuring that the chief executive is seen to be speaking for the whole organisation. Secondly, leaders must take time to network and build good relationships with peers from other charities so that there is mutual support through tough times. This is as true for the chair of the trustees as it is for the chief executive.

Leadership skills and behaviours can be learned. Aspiring local sector leaders – especially chairs of charity trustee boards – would do well to look at the new opportunities available through bodies like ACEVO, the Association of Chairs and the Open University.  

Kevin Curley CBE is chair of Community Action Derby

Subscribers to Governance & Leadership magazine can read this month's issue on 'what makes a great CEO?' here. Find out more about subscribing to the magazine here.


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