After three years with ACOSVO, this is my take on third sector leadership

ACOSVO Operations and Development Manager Andy Dey reflects on third sector leadership after three years in post...


After leading organisations in another sector, having the opportunity to observe third sector leaders during three years with ACOSVO has been fascinating. It has certainly given me insight into what it takes to be successful in this field.

Many of the principles of excellent leadership are similar no matter the area of work: ambition to achieve goals; energy to go the extra mile; living your vision, mission and values; and communicating with and understanding your board, stakeholders, customers, and employees. But what is it about the third sector and its leaders that is different?

Outsiders looking in perceive poor pay, lack of job security and a sector predominantly led by retired or part-time workers. They do not see a career in the third sector or Chief Officer position as main stream but a vocation for others.

But I would argue they are wrong and do not understand the sector. They cannot comprehend why someone would want to give so much to something that is often intangible and do not understand that ‘heart’ rather than 'head’ is a pre requisite.  They cannot comprehend that simply knowing you make a difference can be a motivating factor or an environment where salary, bonus and profit are not main drivers.

I quickly learnt that leaders are in the third sector because they want to be. That whatever challenge is faced, they enjoy that feel-good factor of making a difference. I see leadership roles that are broader, more all-consuming, with wider remits. Where budgets and teams are incredibly lean, resources barely adequate and infrastructure so fragile. Where living hand-to-mouth year after year in environments of political and economic uncertainty are the norm. Where organisational capacity and recruitment of quality colleagues are continual challenges. Where authenticity, pragmatism and cooperation are key to success.

But equally, I see third sector leaders who are overly defensive and risk averse; who focus on the past rather than the future; who are reactive, on the back foot and expend energy fighting fires rather than thinking strategically; who do not seek the big picture or continually horizon scan for emerging opportunities; who are afraid to put their head above the parapet for fear of being seen as different or progressive.

Given the recent battering the sector has taken, with growing public scepticism and plummeting lack of trust, why are the sector's leaders not standing shoulder to shoulder, speaking with a collective voice, taking every opportunity to shout out the fantastic good they and the sector are doing?

I see leaders taking too much for granted, not changing with the landscape, not focusing on the difference they make and who still have a 'cap in hand' mentality. Why are they not telling stories, building evidence banks, demonstrating impact, highlighting value added or sufficiently outcome focussed? Why are they not showcasing what the sector is good at instead of dwelling on criticisms from newspapers? Quite frankly, I believe many leaders and their organisations are no longer connecting with the ‘People’.  

Please do not take this the wrong way. I am aiming to be constructively critical. Third sector leadership is not easy. These are challenging times. The point I am making is that challenging times are when organisations need strong leadership with leaders who do not accept the status quo, who are adaptable, open to new ideas and able to change direction rapidly. Leaders who are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity will thrive, others may perish.

There are many fantastic leaders in the sector with the modern skills required to lead dynamic successful organisations, who are facing these challenges head on, driving their organisations forward in the face of the storm. But equally, and in my humble opinion, there are others who are content to sit in the middle lane, doing what they've always done and hope the good times will return. They and their organisations may be in for a shock.

What type of third sector leader are you?