Grasping academic opportunity

This blog was orginally published in TFN on 18th February 2020. To see the original article, please click here.

Pat Armstrong discusses whether third sector leadership and academic learning goes hand in hand or is an uncomfortable fit.


When I was studying for my MBA with Heriot Watt University Business School between 1991 and 1996, I was a mum of two young children and administrator for a local women’s project. Now I am chief executive of the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations (ACOSVO), which supports over 500 voluntary sector leaders and their organisations across Scotland. I also serve as vice chair of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) and in 2018 was awarded an OBE for services to the voluntary sector.


So, when Edinburgh Business School contacted me about their Silver Scholar MBA scheme in 2016 which awarded 19 applicants a fully funded (valued at more than £10,000 per scholar) place on its world-renowned Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme, I was immediately keen to encourage leaders across the voluntary sector to grasp the opportunity.


The successful applicants were chosen by a judging panel and among the 19 recipients were seven voluntary sector leaders, their work spanning the sector in terms of geography and focus. Most of these seven have now graduated, some with distinction and others are nearing completion and due to graduate this year.


2020 sees a new cohort of voluntary sector leaders, all of whom are active ACOSVO members, investing their time and expertise (while in post) working to achieve a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) with Edinburgh’s Napier University. Over three years, as researchers, they will explore topics of interest to their organisations, beneficiaries and policy sectors.


This programme aims to build the capacity of thought leadership in the sector to enable positive change for Scotland. Three leaders have signed up to start this year and a further six have noted interest for the next cohort.


In times of uncertainty, bold leadership is required, and we have leaders willing and ready to invest their time and knowledge into exploring what that means and what impact it could have on the sector and on Scotland. These leaders will support each other through the process and ensure complementarity and additionality in their chosen topics and the areas explored to ensure the biggest positive impacts.


We hear a lot about positive disruption, are told to proceed until apprehended, focus on system change, disrespect boundaries and have a focus on incorporating kindness and wellbeing, be values based, and be clear on our value proposition. We need time and space to focus on what needs to be done to achieve this, consider what intellectual muscles need to be flexed and what current research needs to be explored – all a bit of a challenge while “juggling on a unicycle”.


At the end of this process participants will have undertaken research, critical investigation and evaluation, integrated rigorous academic/critical analysis with practical relevance and application, made meaningful links from the research findings of the thesis back to the sector; and, clearly communicated their work and disseminated ideas to fellow professionals in order to develop practice and enhance their impact. If that’s not something meaningful for the voluntary sector as a whole, I don’t know what is. Maybe a good fit after all?


Pat Armstrong is chief executive of the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations (ACOSVO)