Why we must value leaders from the third sector

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At our recent leadership summit, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, highlighted the need to lead culture change by not only celebrating inspirational leaders, but by ensuring they are drawn from a diverse pool of talent, including the third sector. But how well are leaders in the third sector supported to take up this leadership challenge?

Many voluntary organisations have a detailed understanding of community needs, knowledge about how to achieve joined-up care, and the ability to address some of our most costly and complex health challenges. The sector is an increasingly important part of the health and social care jigsaw: approximately 40,000 third sector organisations work in health and social care, and the sector hosts many of the three million health and social care volunteers. In addition, the statutory sector spends around £3.4 billion on third sector services every year.

Yet despite this, development support for third sector leaders is lagging behind. Third sector organisations rarely have the resources to pay for leadership development and there are very few high-quality leadership programmes designed around their needs. Our policy work and leadership programmes have shown that the health and social care system needs leaders who can adapt, collaborate, lead differently and thrive in an increasingly competitive and complex environment.

To support these leaders in the third sector we provide an intensive and highly valued leadership development programme for award winners, funded by GSK and run in partnership with The Fund. We have now extended support for this group of charities by creating a leadership development network for winners of the GSK IMPACT Awards.

The GSK IMPACT Awards Network provides free opportunities for professional development and collaboration, and already has a membership of 70 award-winning health charities. Network activities for members this year include a session with health and social care commissioners to explore the relationships between the voluntary sector and commissioning; working with specialist trainers to develop communication and influencing skills; and an event at the Scottish Parliament. Members have told us that being part of the Network has had significant benefits, including access to a wide range of award-winning charities, peer support with no competition, an injection of new ideas, reducing professional isolation and improving their organisations’ effectiveness.

Our work with the award winners has taught us a huge amount about the constant pressures facing third sector leaders, and about their resourcefulness and resilience. During the programme we have worked to develop leaders in relation to the specific challenges facing their organisations, helping them to develop the skills they need to implement organisational change and bring their teams and partners with them. The third sector leaders we work with seize every opportunity given, knowing that this type of development opportunity is extremely rare and has to be hard fought for and won.

On his first day in his new role, Simon Stevens talked about the need to unleash innovation and improvement in order to catalyse change in the NHS. He saw three critical sources of what he called ‘renewable energy’, one of which was ‘supporting the amazing commitment of carers and volunteers and communities to sustain their health and social care services’. If the third sector is to reach its potential in supporting a new health and social care system, then we should look to its leaders and think hard about their support needs.

The GSK IMPACT Awards which provide funding and free leadership development for health charities are now open for applications. Find out more and apply >


Mary Tilki

BME Cancer Alliance
Comment date
03 July 2014
Well said Simon Stevens! But not just the big third sector, already close to government - but the diverse BME sector, who provide specialised niche services across a range of health conditions to particular ethnic communities. These groups emerged to address the dissatisfaction of BME people with mainstream services and are in danger of going under at a time when need is increasing. But let us play on an even playing field. We don't have the capacity to compete for funding with the big third sector mainly because our priorities are to the vulnerable people we deliver to. We welcome partnerships but our contribution must be costed and paid for -voluntary services don't come free since our armies of volunteers need organising and supervising. We can reach communities which are suspicious of the mainstream because we speak their language, are trusted and function in ways which work for our constituents. We are tired of being exploited and patronised but BME communities have needs which the mainstream are unable to address. We cant do it alone and you cant do it without us.

James Harper

Beacon Counselling
Comment date
08 July 2014
Many thanks Lisa, an Interesting article. I agree with points made by Simon Stevens but whilst it is great that increasing numbers of senior leaders in other sectors recognise the value of the voluntary sector and the importance of leadership within it, it would be good to have heard from him on how the NHS plans to contribute to developing the sector.

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