Looking to the future: Leadership and values

Rosie Walworth is part of NCVO’s communications team and has been involved in the collation and editing of these responses.

NCVO is 100 years old this year, and we’ve spent some time reflecting on the history of charities and volunteering. But now we want to take some time to think about what the future might look like for charities, social enterprises and community groups. We’ve asked people from around the sector for their thoughts.

This week, the theme is leadership and values.

We’d love to hear your views on the themes. You can share them using the hashtag #LookingToTheFuture, and remember to tag @NCVO.

On leadership and values, you’ll be hearing from:

  • Imran Khan is head of public engagement at The Wellcome Trust and trustee of Nesta
  • Menai Owen-Jones is chief executive officer of The Pituitary Foundation and trustee of ACEVO
  • Rita Chadha is the chief executive of Small Charities Coalition
  • Jo Hooper is the founder of Mad and Sad Club and host of the podcast A Place to Thrive. Jo spent 11 years working in communications, most recently as head of corporate communications at Which? She now uses her comms expertise and her experiences of struggling with mental health to advise leaders, HR and internal communications teams to tackle poor mental health in their workplaces.

What differentiates charity leaders from leaders in the private and public sectors?


I’m not sure there is a fundamental difference. The obvious one might be where people get their sense of purpose or satisfaction from, but I’ve seen my fair share of disillusioned charity leaders and inspiring, community-oriented private sector ones. I think the bigger difference is in the particular regulatory, funding, and strategic challenges leaders in this sector are faced with.


There is much we can learn and share between sectors and I would encourage more cross-sector learning in the future. Charity leaders could learn from the business skills of private sector leaders to help develop innovative fundraising streams and digital solutions, for example. Equally I think in our sector we have some fantastic role models of leadership and other sectors could learn from us around leading with values and purpose.


People often refer to the mission and values that mark the difference between the charity, public, and private sector. But it is more about the resources available to leaders with each of the sectors. We presume that the differences arise from the mission and vision, we don’t look at the fact that we the sectors are structurally different.



Leaders often expect staff and volunteers to go above and beyond to deliver charitable missions. This can impact staff wellbeing. How do you manage this tension?


Again, I don’t think this is a problem specific to charitable missions – anywhere where you find driven people who care about their work you can see this happen. That doesn’t mean charity leaders don’t have a responsibility, though. Part of the answer has to be setting a culture from the top down.


In my experience, the vast majority of volunteers and staff are intrinsically motivated by their belief in the cause and its purpose.

Our role, then, as sector leaders is to embrace this motivation, and to create an encouraging, positive culture and environment, so people feel valued and inspired to give willingly above and beyond.

An important part of creating this positive culture is care. This means considering individuals’ wellbeing so that people don’t burn out, and making sure that there are workplace practices in place that safeguard everyone’s wellbeing (like flexible working, setting realistic goals, ensuring people take their annual leave, and not creating a culture of answering emails late at night).


People can feel so strongly about the organisation that they can push themselves too hard for too long. This danger is much higher in charities and this is a unique challenge. It pushed me further than I was able to go. Working too hard and expecting too much of myself.

There is a huge part to play around awareness and recognising there is a tension here. If someone is going above and beyond constantly and consistently for a long time, the leaders and managers must be aware.

Leaders have a duty of care to notice and be aware, to pull up their teams and say ‘you’ve been flat out for the past few weeks, you need to take a break’.

It’s important for senior leaders to practice what they preach. When you check your emails when you are away you give mixed messages about what is expected, and you disempower your team that you’ve left behind with your trust whilst you’re away.

Part of the work I do is to explain to leaders that how they communicate can have massive impact on the mental health of your staff.


I don’t believe that leaders intentionally expect staff and volunteers to go above and beyond, but it can so easily become a part of the expected culture of an organisation.

As charity leaders we think of ‘wellbeing’ in a business model about risk management. For me the big tell sign is to see, if leaders use ‘I’ or ‘we’, and if they refer to the people they lead and work with as ‘staff’ or ‘colleagues’.

I have seen so many leaders pronounce ‘I’ before ‘we’. Call me old fashioned, but I do believe when there is a success to be celebrated it is as a team, when there is a failure it is an ‘I’. As charity leaders we are paid to lead our beneficiaries, our colleagues, our trustees somewhere, but it is a team journey, not an ego-driven rampage.

To what extent do you think voluntary sector leaders are viewed as knights in shining armour who can solve any problem or challenge? 


In my experience, the majority of people who work in the voluntary sector are idealistic but also realistic about what organisations and leaders can do. That doesn’t stop us always wanting more, but I hope we realise and remember that even leaders are only human.


Charity leaders are held to higher account than other sectors. I think it is right that as a values-led sector there should be expectations of high standards of conduct. Saying that, however, voluntary sector leaders are human too. People make mistakes and unwanted behaviours can sadly happen. We can’t stop this entirely; however we can work to reduce the risk of harmful behaviours happening in our sector by calling out unacceptable behaviours; holding people to account; shifting power; ensuring strong governance and role modelling values-led and inclusive leadership in the sector.


Oh yes, the old martyr complex. Being honest, there have been times in my career when I have taken on all aspects of running a charity to just get the work done. I have been, like so many others, the cleaner, the carer, the business planner, the media spokesperson, the receptionist, the front-line advisor and trainer, all within a space of a single day. This is the practical manifestation of running a small charity.

I may be a bit at odds with some of my colleagues in this respect, because I do believe that as charity leaders, we do have a responsibility to offer and discover solutions, that is not martyrdom, that is our role.

At a time when some parts of the sector receive such a bad press, we need to talk up the sector, not collude with negative commentaries.

Was there anybody that was key to your development as a leader? What did they teach you?


The people who took risks on me, and gave me the opportunity to lead. I don’t think you can ever be taught leadership; you pick it up by trial and error, and knowing you’ll be trusted even if you get some things wrong. So I guess the main thing I learnt was to try and take more risks on other people.


I think your experiences and relationships throughout your life influence your development as a leader. My parents were very influential role models for me in how I work, even now. My father taught me about perseverance, high standards, focus and hard work. My mum taught me about kindness, empathy, developing others and being inclusive.

Throughout my career to date I’ve also been fortunate to meet many people from all walks of life who have, and continue, to influence me and help me to develop as a leader. I’m always humbled by the selflessness and generosity of volunteers; by the commitment and dedication of colleagues; and by the kindness, encouragement and mentoring from other, more experienced, sector leaders.


So I think my biggest period of learning how to be a better leader came after a really bad period with my mental health and I needed to take three months off. I ran a team of twelve and just couldn’t carry on.

It was my team that were key to my development as a leader. I came back and was very honest with them that I had been off with anxiety and depression, that I was still not very well and was still reaching my ‘new normal’. I recognise that the way I was working before wasn’t good for anyone, and made some promises to them and asked them to always call me out if I wasn’t doing them – only getting involved with their work when they wanted me to, or when I could add genuine value.

We built a very open culture in the team. Not just about all of our mental health and providing support for one another, but also, I think I was able to give them more flexibility and more growth by being honest with them and them with me. I feel like I became a much better leader.


He will blush if he hears or reads this, but my inspiration was a CVS leader called David Abse back in the early 2000s. David was CEO of what was then Islington Voluntary Action Council. David was well briefed and informed, but also trusted his staff team, just to get on and do the work.

The charity sector has a diversity problem and has not done enough to promote or recruit people from minority groups to senior leadership positions.  Why is this, and what can be done to change it?


I think this will only change where we recognise that improving our own diversity is either a part of our purpose, or a necessary element in delivering our strategy. If you see it as an important thing but one which you’ll address once you’ve fulfilled your charitable objective or fixed society… well, you’ll never get around to prioritising it.


I think addressing the issue requires us to look at our own attitudes, beliefs and actions. We need leaders in the sector to act and drive this change. It would also be helpful for us in the sector to share more with each other about our experiences and practices around improving diversity and inclusion, so we can learn from each other.


It is incredibly difficult to climb the ladder if you are living with mental illness. For 11 years I was climbing the career ladder in communications. I am an ambitious person and I want to do well and the way of working I developed was to strive, push, hustle, work all of the hours and work myself into the ground. It worked for me for those ten years until it suddenly didn’t.

When it comes to people with mental illness moving up in organisations, we need some new role models to show the way. I often liken it to having a chronic health condition. Sometimes it is manageable, and you can keep it on an even keel, but sometimes you will have a flare up and it will become acute and you will need to look after yourself by taking time off or reducing your hours. In many industries we don’t see that as the norm, we see that as a weakness. That needs to change.


Our fundamental problem is that we don’t have the same force of the legislative framework that other sectors do. Small charities do need to comply with equal opportunities policies and frameworks, but very few will have to report on their gender pay gap, or how many ethnic people or disabled people they employ. Some leaders get confused between diversity and equality, and some have a voyeuristic fascination with the ‘other’ that is equally embarrassing and can feel very much like tokenism. Some of the comments discussing the issues are cringe worthy, ill-informed and frankly embarrassing.

As a British Asian woman I believe that if I intervene in a public debate people would say, ‘Well she would say that, wouldn’t she’. You have to learn to pick your battles when you are a minority, but you must battle if you are in a leadership role for those that are not there with you, for the those who the establishment does not hear, see, or recognise.

Yet, look at the irony, a week before my appointment was announced as CEO of the Small Charities Coalition, the new CEO of NCVO was announced. The sector debate at the NCVO appointment was for the most part appalling, ungracious, scathing and unnecessary. What we should have been asking is not why has a white male got the job, but rather what will this white man do in the role on the issues of diversity and equality? I have always said, ‘You don’t have to put your hand in the fire to know it is hot’. We should rely and trust in our own and our colleagues’ ability to empathise. Meanwhile I get appointed, does anyone celebrate my difference? No. Does anyone recognise that here is an Asian woman in a leadership role? No. What that says to me is two things, firstly we don’t know how to talk about difference in the sector, and secondly, we don’t see the opportunities when they arise.

What skills and values do you think leaders in the voluntary sector need for the future?


You have to believe in change, but there’s no one template, and – speaking of diversity – I don’t think it’s helpful to just have one model for people to aspire to.

Everyone leads in their own way. Some people are brilliant, inspiring communicators. Others are great strategic thinkers and planners. And then you have people who just know how to solve problems and get things done.

I could go on. The only constant is whether other people are motivated to follow you, believe in the type of change you want to create, and understand how you want to do it.


We need courageous leadership in the sector. Leaders who embrace change and trial new things, who are focussed on preparedness for the uncertain future ahead. Flexibility, situational fluency and being comfortable with uncertainty will be critical.

Leaders who also prioritise values, like kindness and empathy, and embrace diversity in all its forms and are collaborative and inclusive in how they work, are key to the future. As the world becomes faster and more digital the ability to connect with, and build real, human relationships with people, and relational skills will be critical for future leaders too.

So many people in society currently feel unheard; do people in our organisations feel unheard too? Sector leaders should make sure they are listening to all stakeholders and hearing opinions, even if the opinions make us feel uncomfortable or the points of view are different to our own. We should be sharing and devolving power across our organisations.


In terms of values, it’s all about being human and recognising that people can’t be on it all of the time, that people need flexibility. Compassion, understanding are huge values that leaders need to have. You can still run a successful organisation and be a human and show your strengths and weaknesses at the same time. You can build a far more honest and supportive culture in this way.


It is not so much that the voluntary sector needs new skills for the future, it needs a formalised and standardised framework for recognising and investing in skills development.

We need to regain pride in our sector, we need to create a space for difficult conversations to be had and to understand that we are better as a collective force than individual agencies.



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Avatar photo Rosie joined NCVO in 2018 as a trainee external relations officer after working as a programme manager for a literacy charity. Rosie supports both NCVO’s parliamentary work and media relations, including Constructive Voices, and is responsible for organising our annual Campaigning Conference.

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